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What's wrong with burning our trash?

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Waste-to-energy, also called bioenergy, has been used in Europe, East Asia and the United States for decades to destroy garbage that would otherwise go to landfill. Waste incineration is often presented as a smart way to make our trash problem disappear, and even create energy in the process. But studies have shown that this premise is without scientific basis.

The trash is burned as feedstock at high temperatures to create fuel, gas or steam that drives a turbine and churns out electricity. The process of incineration merely transforms the waste into other forms of wastes, such as toxic ash and air and water pollution, which are harder to contain and usually more toxic than the original form of the waste. The term is also a misnomer—waste is a highly inefficient fuel and these facilities are barely able to generate even a small amount of electricity.

Actually, Waste incineration doesn’t fit into a sustainable circular economy. Burning waste is incompatible with a closed-loop circular economy model as incinerators destroy valuable materials in a polluting manner. By reducing the volume but increasing the toxicity of waste, incineration merely replaces one waste stream with another. Incinerators also support the linear economy model by extracting virgin materials only to waste them at the end.

Waste incineration is not a source of renewable energy. Incinerator companies are often marketing “waste-to-energy” as a source of renewable energy. But unlike wind, solar or wave energy, waste doesn’t come from infinite natural processes. On the contrary, it is sourced from finite resources, like minerals, fossil fuels and forests, that are cut down at an unsustainable rate.

It has been mentioned above that burning waste is hazardous for citizens’ health and the environment. Even the most advanced technologies cannot avoid the release of vast amounts of pollutants that contaminate air, soil and water, and end up entering the food chain. Incinerators are major emitters of carcinogenic pollutants as well tiny particles of dust that can lead to decreased lung function, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and premature death.

“Waste-to-energy” is often described as a good way to extract energy from resources, but in fact it works against the circular economy, producing toxic waste, air pollution and contributing to climate change – all without delivering what it promised. At present, in South Korea, more than 60% of renewable energy is derived from waste, with cheap production costs (10% of solar power and 66% of wind power). Thus, producing energy using waste has emerged as the most efficient way the country can provide itself with the desired renewable energy. The most advanced being Japan, around 70% of the total waste produced in Japan is incinerated. However, in the coming years, both recycling and incineration with energy recovery are expected to be the most preferred disposal methods.

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