A whole number of myths exist around waste incineration. It is often said to be an "environmentally-friendly" or "green" method for energy production, not contributing to climate change and global crisis. Sometimes, there is concealed the contribution of incinerators to the growing pollution of the planet Earth, and the fact that construction of incinerators blocks development of more sustainable ways of management of raw materials, such as, mainly, material recycling, and waste prevention. We try to set the record straight concerning these and other myths, using scientific facts and current data. In this article, you will find information on the most important ones at one place.
Energy from the Incinerators Is Not „Green“
Waste incineration, similarly as coal combustion, produces high amounts of carbon dioxide, the main driving force of climate change. Incineration of 1 ton of waste releases 0.7 to 1.7 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. This corresponds to CO2 emissions from more than eight thousand kilometres in a passenger car. Electricity production from waste produces higher carbon dioxide amounts per kWh than is the average for energy production in the EU. It is one of the reasons why incinerators shall be included in the emission allowance system by 2030, at the latest. The newest study1 shows that plastic waste incineration will be a more important carbon dioxide source than combustion of fossil fuels by 2050. Long service life of incinerators not only causes delays in transition to renewable energy sources, moreover, this way of energy production is, in comparison with coal combustion, even less effective. CO2 emissions formed during production of the same energy amount are similar in the case of coal and waste, however, triple amount of waste is necessary for that.
Incinerators Contribute to Chemical Pollution of the Planet
According to scientists, safe boundary of chemical pollution of the planet Earth was crossed in 2022. Thus, the level of this kind of pollution is so high that nature is not able to deal with it alone. This is closely related to the topic of plastics and plastic waste. Plastics do not vanish by the incineration, and not only their residues, but also hazardous chemical substances contained in them, are spread into the environment. Microplasts form part of solid waste incineration residues (slag, fly ash), and they may be released from them in the case of incorrect management. Incinerators release also heavy metals and other hazardous substances into the air, into waste, as well as into incineration residues. Further toxic substances are produced by the incineration itself. They include dioxins, that are spread into the environment without control in fly ash in amounts representing the tolerable dose for human population of 133 planets Earth annually.
Emissions from Incinerators Are Not under Control
Emissions into the air are one of the most monitored outputs of waste incinerators. However, toxic substances end, in particular, in solid residues from the incinerators, especially in fly ash. In the Czech Republic, seven indicators are measured in the emissions into the air continually, short term measurements apply to further four ones (mercury, two groups of heavy metals, and dioxins). However, these four indicators are monitored for the period of several hours per year only, and the results need not be representative at all from the point of view of yearlong operation of the incinerator (its start-ups, and, on the opposite, shutdowns or accidents). Moreover, certain substances are not monitored in emissions from incinerators at all, and other ones are monitored in selected new plants only, however, emission limits do not exist for them. The measurements also do not include, for example, emissions released by trucks transporting waste into incinerators, and emissions released from the incinerators in other ways than through the chimney. Air quality in the surroundings of waste incinerators is not usually monitored, too.
Chemical Recycling Is Not an Alternative to Incineration
Technologies, such as gasification, pyrolysis, and depolymerisation, are designated by a summary term chemical recycling. The chemical recycling concerns, in particular, plastic waste, from which a fuel, or, optionally, a raw material for producing new plastics, is produced. However, this raw material has to be usually further treated and „diluted“ so much that the manufactured „recycled material“ contains only a minimal amount of plastic waste. However, the majority of chemical recycling plants serves for manufacturing fuel (of fossil origin) currently, that may be further used, but even this needs further technologically and financially demanding steps leading to its sufficient cleaning. Simultaneously, chemical recycling is not able to destroy hazardous chemical substances contained in the input plastics, they are transferred into the resulting “product”. In comparison with mechanical recycling, requiring lower energy amounts and being more environmentally sound, the chemical one causes losses of carbon in the material, and also energy losses. Thus, it is a method of plastic waste management with high technological, energy, as well as financial demands, that is not very environmentally sound. It is not a good alternative to incineration, it is inherently linear, and from the point of view of circularity it cannot compete with the standard mechanical recycling.
Incinerators Block Recycling and Destroy Valuable Raw Materials
By using recycled materials instead of primary raw materials we not only save resources and energy, but we also prevent further production of carbon dioxide, the main driving force of climate change. Incineration and recycling compete for the same raw materials, namely mixed waste, that is, to a considerable extent (60–70 %, according to our analyses of waste containers), still recyclable. Countries where incineration is used largely, typically recycle less, because construction of a high number of incinerators blocks the recycling. However, much more negatives are connected with waste incineration than with recycling. The material we incinerate has to be mined, transported, and transformed into a product again, instead of recycling and reusing material that was already manufactured.
We All Will Pay for Construction of Incinerators
Investment costs for an incinerator construction are naturally the higher, the higher are environmental protection requirements. In order that incinerator owners get their money back, the incinerator has to be operated for about 25 to 30 years. This results in that the incinerator owners usually bind waste suppliers (municipalities) by contracts for many years in advance. However, this blocks development of alternative, more environmentally sound, waste management systems. Further considerable amounts of money are necessary for operation of the necessary flue gas treatment systems, for management of solid incineration residues (slag, fly ash), for regular maintenance and repairs after accidents. For these reasons, among other things, incinerators are almost never constructed without subsidies from public sources, either Czech or European ones. Actually, the European Union removed incinerators from the list of sustainable investments in 2020 already, because they contradict our environmental objectives significantly.
1 Kwon, S., Kang, J., Lee, B., Hong, S., Jeon, Y., Bak, M., & Im, S.-k. (2023). Nonviable carbon neutrality with plastic waste-to-energy. Environmental Science.
2 Linn Persson, Bethanie M. Carney Almroth, Christopher D. Collins, Sarah Cornell, Cynthia A. de Wit, Miriam L. Diamond, Peter Fantke, Martin Hassellöv, Matthew MacLeod, Morten W. Ryberg, Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, Zhanyun Wang, and Michael Zwicky Hauschild (2022). Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities. Environmental Science & Technology 2022 56 (3), 1510-1521. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c04158
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