Waste Incineration – Why burning garbage is a really bad idea!

Guest blog by engineer Eduardo Uranga

Are the officials at the Comox Valley Regional District, considering building a waste incineration facility as part of a waste management strategy?

Some supporters of waste incineration have said this is a way to produce so called “clean energy”. These projects are sometimes called “waste to energy” facilities. Whatever you call it ultimately this is really just about burning garbage and that is a really bad idea.

Currently Metro Vancouver is considering a plan to build a mass burn incineration facility that would burn at least 500,000 tonnes of garbage every year. If built this would make burning garbage one of the top three sources of the carbon emissions in the lower mainland and in the top ten in the province.

Building a waste incinerator would be a big step in the wrong direction.

New waste incinerators should not be approved for the following reasons:

  • Incinerators do not make waste disappear. For every five truckloads of waste burned, four truckloads are pumped into the atmosphere and one remains as toxic ash, which still must be carefully stored or land filled.
  • Incinerators are a toxic technology. Even the most technologically advanced waste incinerators produce hundreds of distinct hazardous by-products including dioxins, heavy metals, halogenated organic compounds and the newly discovered threat, nanoparticles. These occur both in toxic air emissions and in ash residuals.
  • Incinerators contribute to global warming. Incinerators produce more global warming pollution (mainly carbon dioxide) per unit electricity generated than most other kinds of power including coal, gas and hydroelectric.
  • Incinerators waste energy and natural resources. Incineration irreversibly destroys valuable materials and necessitates the extraction, refinement and assembly of more raw natural resources to produce new products. Alternatives such as recycling reuse and repair and composting conserve energy by efficiently using materials. This significantly reduces global warming pollution, toxic waste and ecological degradation.
  • Incinerators trap communities in a cycle of debt. They also displace more affordable and economically productive waste and energy solutions. Alternatives to incineration such as recycling, repair, reuse and composting create ten times more jobs (green jobs) and small business opportunities that benefit local communities.
  • Disadvantaged communities are disproportionately burdened. These communities are more vulnerable to being targeted as sites for new incinerators.
  • Incineration is not sustainable.

Every time a community builds a trash incineration it sets back the real solutions by 25 years – the time it takes to pay back the massive investment involved. Every time you burn something you have to go back to the beginning of the linear society (extraction- manufacture-consumption-waste). After 25 years you are no closer to sustainability. All you are left with is a pile of ash of approximately one quarter of the mass of the trash that was burned. Promoters claim that incineration produces energy and fights global warming. This is utter nonsense. Three – four times more energy is saved by recycling the same materials as burned. One European company estimates that a combination of recycling and composting reduces global warming gases some 46 times more than incineration generating electricity.

The social costs of incineration are staggering. The huge amount of money spent on incineration goes into complicated machinery (over half the capital cost is needed for air pollution control) and most of it leaves the municipality in the pockets of the multinational companies that build these monsters. With the alternatives most of the money goes into creating local jobs and local businesses, thereby staying in the community and the country. In Brescia, Italy, they spent about $400,000,000 building an incinerator and have created just 80 full-time jobs. While Nova Scotia, a province of Canada, after rejecting an incinerator, has created over 3000 jobs in the handling of the discarded resources and in the industries using these secondary materials.

So incineration is neither sound for the planet nor for the local or national economies. However, because this matter is largely in the hands of engineers and engineering consultants the only issue that has dominated their discussion is “Is it safe?”

Is incineration safe?

The incredible fact is that simply by burning household trash we make the most toxic substances that we have ever been able to make in a chemical laboratory: polyhalogenated dibenzo para dioxins and furans (PCDDs, PCDFs, PBDDs, PBDFs etc) called “dioxins” for short. There are literally thousands of these substances. There is no question that over 25 years the industry has got better at capturing these pollutants but we are still hostage as to how well the plants are designed and operated, monitored and the regulations enforced. In addition to this, incineration releases many toxic metals from otherwise fairly stable matrices. At worst these metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium etc) go into the air, at best they are captured in the fly ash in the air pollution control devices (APC). But it is a truism to state that the better the APC the more toxic the ash becomes. Where is this ash going to go? In Germany and Switzerland the fly ash is put into nylon bags and deposited in salt mines. In Japan a number of the incinerators vitrify the ash, making it into a glass-like material, but that takes a huge amount of energy away from the system. Do you know where the ash is going in this proposal?

For every four tons of trash burned you get at least one ton of ash: 90% is called bottom ash (that is the ash collected under the furnace) and 10% is the very toxic fly ash.

The formidable issue of nanoparticles.

There is nothing new about nanoparticles, which are particle of less than one micron in diameter. They are produced in any high temperature combustion which includes vehicles, coal-fired power stations, industrial boilers etc. What is new is nanotechnology where these particles, which have very unusual properties, are being used in many commercial products from shaving cream to tennis rackets. This has raised the question of whether they have any negative health effects. That question has given rise to a new discipline called nano-toxicology. It turns out that these particles have exquisite biological properties which are very worrying. They are so tiny that they can cross the lung membrane and enter the bloodstream. Once there they can enter every tissue in the body including the brain. The problem with incineration is twofold: a) because every object in commerce is likely to end up in an incinerator any toxic element used in these products is likely to end up in the nanoparticles. The nanoparticles from incinerators are the most dangerous of any common source. b) There are NO regulations in the world for the monitoring nanoparticles from incinerators. In most countries the particles regulated are 10 microns and above. In some countries they regulate particles at 2.5 microns. But neither standard comes closer to monitoring nanoparticles. We are flying blind on this crucial issue.

Before any new incinerator is built anywhere, government officials (or the public) should force the project director to produce a scientific response to the key issue of nanoparticles; if they cannot do so, then clearly building such a plant is taking a reckless gamble with the public’s health. Moreover, if we return to the opening of this statement, such a gamble cannot be justified on either economic or environmental grounds, both local and global.

The alternatives are not pie-in-the-sky

Many communities in California, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and the UK have embarked on the zero waste strategy (not all call it that) and have achieved some with very rapid and impressive results. San Francisco (population 850,000) has reached 72% diversion from waste disposal. Their goal for 2010 is 75% diversion and their goal for 2020 is Zero Waste. Many other communities in California have also reached over 70% diversion. In Italy over 200 communities have done so. Novarra near Turin (pop. 100,000) reached 70% in just 18 months. Salerno, went from 18% to 82 % in one year. Villafranco d’Asti (population 35,000) has reached 85% diversion and the small town of Ursibil in Spain has reached 86%.

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