Power Plant Pollution

Explaining Waste to Energy Incineration Pros and Cons

Jane Marsh - October 13, 2023

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When waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration was first discovered, it showed exceptional promise in reducing waste. However, today, it has garnered a controversial reputation.

While it does offer considerable benefits, it raises the question of whether the advantages outweigh the negatives? Learn more about waste-to-energy incineration, the pros, the cons and whether WtE is worth it. Here is everything you need to know.

What Is Waste-to-Energy Incineration?

As the name suggests, waste-to-energy incineration is the process of burning garbage to generate energy. Usually, the form of energy produced is either electricity or heat. While there are other WtE methods — gasification, anaerobic digestion, fermentation and distillation — incineration is the most common.

One country relying on this procedure heavily is Sweden. Most of the country’s trash is not sent to landfills but instead recycled or used to generate energy. What is remarkable is that 52% of waste is incinerated for electricity generation and 47% is recycled.

Astonishingly, only one percent end up in landfills. Sweden utilized WtE incineration plants alongside other eco-friendly initiatives and positioned themselves as one of the most sustainable countries in the world.

How Does Waste-to-Energy Incineration Work?

Waste-to-energy incineration follows a rather simplistic process. At WtE plants, the garbage is burned, which starts to heat water.

As the water reaches boiling point, steam forms which pushes a large turbine and generates electricity. From here, the energy can power and heat homes nationwide.

4 Pros of Waste-to-Energy Incineration

When it comes to WtE incineration, it has a ton of advantages. Here are four pros of utilizing this procedure.

1. Efficient Method of Waste Management

Many countries rely on this trash disposal and energy generation method because it is very effective at eliminating waste. In the United States, waste-to-energy incineration plants can reduce the volume of trash by more than 85%.

In other words, most garbage at a WtE plant can be burned and utilized as electricity. To put this into perspective, for every 100 pounds of municipal solid waste, an incineration plant can burn 85 pounds of it to generate energy.

2. Less Pollution Compared to Landfills

While waste-to-energy incineration produces CO2 emissions, it causes much less pollution than landfills. At a junkyard, the garbage takes up land space and the materials leak chemicals into the environment. This can contaminate the groundwater supply and pose a serious risk to humans.

In addition, with materials decomposing, they release landfill gas (LFG) — a natural byproduct of decaying trash. LFG consists of 50% methane and 50% CO2. The reason why this is significant is because methane is 28% more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

According to a report from the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), they estimated that eight to ten percent of greenhouse gas emissions will come from landfills by 2025. As mentioned above, while WtE incineration does release harmful gasses, it can reduce the amount of waste sent to dumpsites by more than 85%.

3. Chance To Recover Resources

Another benefit of waste-to-energy incineration is that it provides an opportunity to recover resources. If any valuable materials are spotted, they can be recovered and recycled. This way, they are kept in use instead of rotting away at a junkyard.

4. Better Alternative Than Only Incinerating Waste

Another advantage of WtE incineration is that it is a better alternative than traditional waste disposal methods, which is only burning the garbage. With this method, it generates electricity that can power homes and businesses. In other words, it serves a bigger purpose than only disposing waste.

4 Cons of Waste-to-Energy Incineration

While WtE does produce many benefits, it also has its downsides. Here are some of the cons of waste-to-energy incineration.

1. Significant Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Waste-to-energy incineration releases a significant amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. When comparing this to the pollution landfills cause, it is a lot less, but they still play a role in generating harmful emissions.

Another thing to note is this method is especially harmful to the areas nearby where the plant is located. It can pose significant health risks to communities near the incineration plant.

2. Discourages Recycling and Other Waste Reduction Methods

One major con of WtE incineration is that it can discourage people from using more sustainable procedures. These environmentally friendly methods can include recycling materials or embracing the circular economy — repeatedly utilizing a product and sending it to the manufacturer to create new items which keep it in circulation.

In addition, while WtE does keep garbage out of landfills, it does not encourage people to produce less waste. Only burning trash and not implementing methods to help reduce waste, recycle it or establish practices that aid in reaching a sustainable society is not addressing the real issue.

3. Can Destroy Recoverable Resources

While WtE does present the chance to recover valuable resources and use them for recycling, it is often not. The most common method in the United States used for WtE is mass burn systems.

This means that most municipal solid waste (MSW) is burned without sorting through it. Unfortunately, this results in losing many materials that people could have recycled.

4. High Costs

Installing waste-to-energy incineration plants incur heavy initial costs. Building a WtE plant means new infrastructure and equipment are needed in addition to other things — permits and construction materials. All of this can be expensive.

Why Does Waste-to-Energy Incineration Have a Controversial Reputation?

The reason why waste-to-energy incinerations have a controversial reputation is a simple one. People want to live more sustainable lives and many of them are doing everything in their power to make it happen. While this disposal procedure is much better than traditional methods, it still produces greenhouse gas emissions.

That said, WtE generates less pollution than garbage rotting in landfills. However, is it worth it? Does it make sense to use this operation instead of relying on other sustainable methods, such as the circular economy?

Is WtE Incineration Worth it?

The answer to this question strongly depends. To arrive at a sustainable conclusion, it is detrimental to examine all the facts. Waste-to-energy incineration offers many benefits. It decreases the amount of trash ending up in landfills, is effective at disposing of garbage, generates electricity and does not contribute to groundwater contamination.

In addition, when matched against traditional methods of disposal or trash procuring in junkyards that pollute the environment, it is an excellent alternative. That said, waste is still burned, which causes a release of harmful emissions.

Additionally, the area where the waste is incinerated can pose a risk to surrounding communities. It can also disincentivize people from utilizing more sustainable methods such as recycling or the circular economy.

When looking at all the emissions and disadvantages of incineration plants, it is clear it is not an eco-friendly method of disposing waste or generating electricity. If governments decide to forgo eco-friendly practices for only WtE incineration, they are not working towards a sustainable solution.

That said, relying on WtE alone might not be the best idea, but what about if it is combined with environmentally friendly practices? These could involve promoting a circular economy, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and utilizing renewable energy sources alongside many other sustainable initiatives.

After all, this is what Sweden has done, where they managed to become one of the most sustainable countries in the world. In addition, waste-to-energy incineration plants played a massive role in making them more environmentally friendly.

When taking all these things into account, isn’t it better to at least consider a place for WtE incineration in society than outright dismiss it?

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.