David Suzuki: The problems with incinerating waste

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      Many urban areas have built or are considering building waste-incineration facilities to generate energy. At first glance, it seems like a win-win. You get rid of “garbage” and acquire a new energy source with fuel that’s almost free. But it’s a problematic solution, and a complicated issue.

      Metro Vancouver has a facility in Burnaby and is planning to build another, and Toronto is also looking at the technology, which has been used elsewhere in the region, with a plant in Brampton and another under construction in Clarington. The practice is especially popular in the European Union, where countries including Sweden and Germany now have to import waste to fuel their generators.

      The term “waste” is correct; there’s really no such thing as garbage. And that’s one problem with burning it for fuel. Even those who promote the technology would probably agree that the best ways to deal with waste are to reduce, reuse and recycle it. It’s astounding how much unnecessary trash we create, through excessive packaging, planned obsolescence, hyperconsumerism, and lack of awareness. This is one area where individuals can make a difference, by refusing to buy overpackaged goods and encouraging companies to reduce packaging, and by curbing our desire to always have newer and shinier stuff.

      We toss out lots of items that can be reused, repaired or altered for other purposes. As for recycling, we’ve made great strides, but we still send close to three quarters of our household waste to the landfill. Considering each Canadian produces close to 1,000 kilograms of waste a year, that’s a lot of trash! Much of the material that ends up in landfills is usable, compostable, or recyclable, including tonnes of plastics.

      Turning unsorted and usable trash into a valuable fuel commodity means communities are less likely to choose to reduce, reuse and recycle it. Burning waste can seem easier and less expensive than sorting, diverting, and recycling it. But once it’s burned, it can never be used for anything elseit’s gone!

      Incinerating waste also comes with environmental problems. Although modern technologies reduce many air pollutants once associated with the process, burning plastics and other materials still creates emissions that can contain toxins such as mercury, dioxins, and furans. As with burning fossil fuels, burning waste—much of which is plastics derived from fossil fuels—also produces carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

      Burning waste doesn’t make it disappear, either. Beyond the fly ash and pollutants released into the atmosphere, a great deal of toxic “bottom ash” is left over. Metro Vancouver says bottom ash from its Burnaby incinerator is about 17 percent the weight of the waste burned. That ash must be disposed of, usually in landfills. Metro testing has found high levels of the carcinogenic heavy metal cadmium in bottom ash, sometimes twice the limit allowed for landfills. High lead levels have also been reported.

      Incineration is also expensive and inefficient. Once we start the practice, we come to rely on waste as a fuel commodity, and it’s tough to go back to more environmentally sound methods of dealing with it. As has been seen in Sweden and Germany, improving efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle can actually result in shortages of waste “fuel”!

      It’s a complicated issue. We need to find ways to manage waste and to generate energy without relying on diminishing and increasingly expensive supplies of polluting fossil fuels. Sending trash to landfills is clearly not the best solution. But we have better options than landfills and incineration, starting with reducing the amount of waste we produce. Through education and regulation, we can reduce obvious sources and divert more compostable, recyclable, and reusable materials away from the dump. It’s simply wasteful to incinerate it.

      It would be far better to sort trash into organics, recyclables and products that require careful disposal. We could then divert these different streams to minimize our waste impacts and produce new commodities. Organics used in biomass energy systems could help offset fossil fuel use while creating valuable supplies of fertilizers. Diversion and recycling lessen the need to extract new resources and disrupt the environment while creating more value and jobs. That’s a win all around!

      An earlier version of this article misidentified Burlington, Ontario, as the location of an incinerator.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

      Comments

      6 Comments

      Covanta

      Sep 10, 2013 at 8:01pm

      David Suzuki,you really know NOTHING about modern day incinerators do you?

      It frustrates me that STILL today the Eco Brigade fails to actually research what they spew about......

      I invite you Mr zuki, for a tour of the most modern incinerator in the world, right here in your backyard.........

      jeremygsims@gmail.com

      Sep 11, 2013 at 6:48am

      I question the facts in this article, given that Burlington doesn't even have an incinerator.

      Recycler

      Sep 11, 2013 at 11:44am

      "But once it’s burned, it can never be used for anything else—it’s gone!"

      No it is not gone, as Suzuki later points out. It has been converted largely to carbon dioxide with other chemical side products. The world is an almost closed system from the view point of matter. We do accumulate matter from cosmic dust and meteors and the like, and we do lose some matter as some gas escapes and we send things up in space, but for the most part, all matter stays on earth, it just gets converted between forms and moved around.

      The earth has processes for recycling matter. Carbon dioxide in particular is recycled by photosynthesis into carbohydrates and these are used to build other molecules from basic elements. Thus burning waste only highlights the importance of maintaining the photosynthetic cycle, which of course means reducing our wanton destruction of habitat so that those organisms (e.g. phytoplankton, plants) that recycle the carbon dioxide can continue to do so.

      As for the toxic leftovers, like heavy metals, the earth has ways of dealing with that too, the primary means being dilution and burial.

      The real problem is not any individual process that we as humans undertake. It is that there are far too many of us, individually consuming far too much and far too rapidly for the earth to compensate while maintaining equilibrium without reaching extremes. This of course means that the limits between which the earth's climate oscillates are getting farther apart, which will spell difficulties for many species not adapted or unable to adapt to the extremes and the oscillations.

      It's happened before and will happen again. Not so much being in the middle of it, although in the present-day case, we have only just begun.

      Ian_Hanington

      Sep 12, 2013 at 4:11pm

      @jeremygsims@gmail.com: My apologies. Reference should have been to the incinerator in Brampton, not Burlington,for which the contract has not been renewed. It's been corrected.

      Diana Daghofer

      Sep 29, 2013 at 12:01pm

      I very much appreciate Dr. Suzuki's perspective on this issue. Prevent Cancer Now, the non-profit organization of which I am co-chair, has done its homework. We know that incineration is harmful, for all the reasons cited above - it requires an ongoing, substantial waste stream (discouraging the 3Rs); it results in toxic waste in the incinerator that must be disposed of, and it is NOT cost-effective. The industry continues to block efforts to have unbiased testing of the effluent from its stacks and refuses to share the data it does have, so we have no way of knowing what is actually escaping into the air. They have a lot more explaining to do before foisting their toxic technology on unsuspecting citizens. Prevent Cancer Now continues to support organizations opposed to incineration, and has detailed information on our website, preventcancernow.ca.

      Mike Doverskog

      Sep 11, 2014 at 6:42am

      Burning waste for fuel only happens to the waste that is currently deemed non-recyclable or not economically viable to recycle. I still think it's better to extract the energy from this waste before disposing of it than to just dig it into a hole and then let it slowly produce all the same poisons. Can't the ash be used in concrete, perhaps as a partial replacement for sand, and used for, say, building transport infrastructure such as roads, bridges, runways and railways (sleepers)?