Burnt: why waste incineration is harmful

Wheelabrator Saugus Incineration Plant in Saugus, MA

Since the Biden administration took office, Congress has been considering bills to fund infrastructure, tackle plastic pollution, and fight against climate change. While legislative action is welcome, Congress must avoid ideas disguised as environmental advances that truly threaten public health and the environment. One example is the confusing cluster of technologies that all involve the incineration of waste, such as’ waste-to-energy ‘or many forms of’chemical recycling”(Processes frequently used to convert fuel plastics which is then burnt). These technologies are touted as beneficial to the environment by various industries, but the waste incineration– even if it masquerades as “chemical recycling” – is a bogus solution that Congress should firmly reject.

Regardless of what is burned (municipal mixed solid waste, plastic, outlets from “chemical recycling“), The incineration of waste creates and / or releases harmful chemicals and pollutants, comprising:

  • Air pollutants such as particulate matter, which cause lung and heart disease
  • Heavy metals such as lead and mercury, which cause neurological diseases
  • Toxic chemicals, such as PFAS and dioxins, which cause cancer and other health problems

These chemicals and pollutants enter the air, water and food supply near incinerators and enter people’s bodies when they breathe, drink and eat contaminants.

Studies find that proximity to waste incineration can increase the risk of cancer, birth defects and other adverse health effects. Often low-income people and communities of color bear the brunt of this toxic burden, with 80% of US municipal solid waste incinerators located in communities where more than 25% of people identify as “in the minority,” living below the federal poverty rate, or both.

And the impacts are also far-reaching. A number of substances emitted by the incineration of waste are considered to be the “worst of the worst” –persistent polluting organisms that do not decompose, travel across the world, and accumulate in humans and wildlife, affecting their health. For example, toxic substances like PFAS, dioxins and mercury compounds are found in the environment, humans and marine mammals in the Arctic, far from any industrial source. A study found that the incineration of municipal waste in the United States was responsible for 70 to 80% of the dioxins found in the Far North.

“Chemical recycling” is not recycling

“Conversion technologies”, “chemical conversion” and most forms of “advanced recycling” and “”chemical recycling“The processes are not true recycling methods. What we are really talking about is combustion: these processes inappropriately and inefficiently use mixed municipal solid wastes as feedstock for incinerators or delayed incinerators (eg, pyrolysis and other “combustion technologies”. conversion ”which create synthetic gas which is then burned). recycling can actually turn plastics into plastics, in practice most of the time “chemical recycling” is just one way to turn plastics into fuel. Each type of material in municipal solid waste has an environmentally optimal disposal / treatment route (i.e. its most sustainable way to be disposed of and treated), which is almost always recycling. This includes traditional mechanical recycling as well as the recycling of organic materials such as composting or anaerobic digestion.

Paper, for example, can be recycled multiple times (on average 7 to 12 times for higher quality paper types), each time with savings in energy, materials (trees), water and pollution. compared to creating paper from virgin materials. Additionally, composting organics returns nutrients and carbon to the soil, where they improve soil health, reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers, and improve water and nutrient retention.

Recycling save more energy and avoids more greenhouse gases than waste incineration / “chemical recycling”. Since energy is required to operate waste incinerators, the the net amount of energy generated by incineration is low or, in some cases, non-existent-so even “waste to energy” is often a misnomer.

Of course, the best way to reduce the harmful impacts of waste is to produce less waste. But “waste-to-energy” systems rely on significant amounts of waste to function, which discourages waste reduction. They too tend to be more expensive and compete directly with recycling facilities for funding and location of resources.

We can’t burn our problems

Real solutions must focus on producing less waste, making less plastic, and using efficient and proven methods of mechanical and organic recycling, without finding new ways to incinerate these materials. We must move towards a truly circular, sustainable and fair economy based on materials that do not pollute, do not contain toxic chemicals and do not come from fossil fuels.

For all these reasons, like environmental and environmental justice groups that expressed strong opposition to the policies Supporting the incineration of waste, Congress should not give the chemical and fossil fuel industries another opportunity to pollute the world, harm the public and impose the costs of their products on communities.

Whatever the euphemism of greenwashing used by the industry – whether it is “energy recovery from waste”, “chemical recycling” or something else – the incineration of waste is a false solution that will end. by leaving Congress, communities and the public feeling burnt out.


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