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July 2013: Incineration is lazy and stupid

July 10, 2013

Mülldeponie

When I returned to BC after working in the UK for several years, I was pleased to see advertisements proclaiming Vancouver’s target to achieve zero waste. I knew the goal was achievable, because it was an issue I’d worked on. Good for Vancouver, I thought.

Time passed. Some of the steps I knew were necessary were taken. In addition to the existing recycling scheme, kitchen and garden waste collection was established which included many, if not all, apartment buildings where home composting is not practicable. Aside from the fact that this waste can be easily composted in large volumes and turned back into a useful supplement for gardeners, it is the presence of wet waste – and the methane it produces – that makes landfills a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, the other thing wet waste in municipal garbage does is make incineration far more difficult. Oh, dear. Sure enough, five years later, what do I hear? Metro Vancouver wants to ship its garbage to Nanaimo (or some other sucker community) to be burned in a “waste to energy” facility.

Back in 2000, faced with meeting various EU targets on waste management, the UK government decided to build 100 “waste to energy” plants across the country. The word “incinerator” did not appear in their waste strategy, which made various dubious claims, not least a classic doublespeak suggestion that the energy created from burning rubbish was somehow “renewable” and should count towards green energy targets.

So, let’s nip that one in the bud. It takes more energy to burn waste than burning that waste can ever create. Period.

Incineration by any name will still pollute.

There are some irrefutable laws of physics, one of which is this: Matter cannot be destroyed, it can only be transformed into new forms. A third of the garbage which goes into an incinerator will be transformed into ash and slag, the rest goes up the chimney, where it is either released directly into the environment or captured in filters.

Incineration of household waste causes chemical reactions which form new compounds. For example, chlorine in the waste (e.g. that old PVC shower curtain you threw out) combines with organic molecules to form dioxins and other highly toxic and often carcinogenic compounds.

Scientists have already identified hundreds of hazardous substances released in waste incineration. There may be thousands more. As well as dioxins, the hazardous substances include: furans, lead, cadmium, mercury and other metals, particulate matter (dust), benzene, phenols and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

You put three tonnes of garbage in an incinerator and end up with a tonne of contaminated ash and slag, and 15,000 cubic metres of contaminated exhaust gases.

What do you do with the ash? Most commonly (believe it or not), it’s put in a landfill to contaminate air, water and land.

The only thing you can do about the exhaust gases is install filters to capture as many of the pollutants as possible. Some will still escape to directly contaminate air, land and water, but state-of-the-art filters do capture a lot of pollutants. The problem is that the stuff in the filters is unbelievably dangerous and must be transported to and disposed of in secure hazardous waste storage sites.

Incineration is the enemy of waste minimisation. Private companies want a return on investment for building incinerators and that return is a guaranteed minimum tonnage of garbage to burn. Municipalities are locked into providing huge volumes of waste for decades.

Getting to zero waste (or damn close) is not rocket science. According to Metro Vancouver, 47% of household garbage is readily compostable kitchen and garden waste, 28% is recyclable paper and plastic, 2% is electrical waste. Reusable or recyclable glass and metal will make up another 10% of the waste stream. So, serious source separation, made as easy as possible for households, could reduce the volume of waste by 87%.

Of course there will always be people who are too lazy (or stupid) to separate their waste. This problem can be dealt with at the front end of a Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) facility. Already widely used in Europe, MBT systems can be designed to remove compostable, recyclable and dangerous material (e.g. batteries) from residual waste. (By contrast, incinerator operators want all that combustible paper and the greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels in  plastic.) Biological treatment ensures the reduced volume of residual waste can be safely landfilled.

The volume of waste going to landfills has been reduced by more than 92%. Incineration is a lazy and stupid alternative.

The term “waste management” is oxymoronic. After all, if you’ve created waste, you haven’t managed very well. It’s time to move past the throwaway waste mentality and think in terms of resource recovery.

Anne M. Holmes is a former Greenpeace toxics campaigner and a founding member of the UK Zero Waste Alliance.

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