Waste Incineration: A Dying Technology

Waste Incineration: A Dying Technology

By Report made by (GAIA)

Incineration is an outdated and unsustainable method of dealing with waste. As global opposition to incineration continues to grow, innovative philosophies and practices for the sustainable management of discarded materials are being developed and adopted around the world.

Executive Summary

Incineration is an outdated and unsustainable method of dealing with waste. As global opposition to incineration continues to grow, innovative philosophies and practices for the sustainable management of discarded materials are being developed and adopted around the world.

Section 1: The Problems of Incineration

Section 1 deals with the problems of waste incineration: polluting emissions, both to the air and to other media; economic costs and labor costs; loss of energy; unsustainability; and incompatibility with other waste management systems. It also deals with specific problems for Southern countries.

Dioxins are the best known pollutant associated with incinerators. They cause a wide variety of health problems, including cancer, damage to the immune system, and reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are biomagnified, which means they pass through the food chain from prey to predator, concentrating on meat and dairy products and eventually humans. Dioxins are of particular interest because they are everywhere present in the environment (and in humans) at levels that have been shown to cause health problems, implying that the entire population is now suffering from their effects. Around the world, incinerators are the primary source of dioxins.

Incinerators are also a major source of mercury contamination. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, impairing motor, sensory, and cognitive functions, and mercury contamination is widespread. Incinerators are also a significant source of other heavy metal pollutants, such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, and beryllium.

Other pollutants of concern emitted by incinerators include other halogenated hydrocarbons (other than dioxins); acid gases, precursors of acid rain; particulate effluents, which impair lung functions; and greenhouse gases. However, the characterization of pollutant emissions from incinerators is still incomplete, and many as yet unidentified compounds are present in emissions to air and ash.

Incinerator operators often claim that air emissions are "under control", but evidence indicates that this is not the case. First, for many pollutants, such as dioxins, any additional emissions are unacceptable. Second, emissions monitoring is patchy and grossly flawed, so even current emission levels are not truly known. Third, existing information indicates that incinerators are unable even to conform to current regulatory standards.

When air pollution control equipment works, it removes pollutants from the air and concentrates them in the fly ash, creating a mass of hazardous waste that needs further treatment. Therefore, the problem of polluting emissions is not solved; pollutants are simply transferred from one medium (air) to another (solids or water). Ash from incinerators is highly hazardous, but is generally poorly regulated. It is not even safe to dispose of it in landfills; since the sanitary landfills have losses; But in some places the ash is left exposed to the elements or even scattered in residential or food producing areas.

Incinerators are often deliberately installed in low-income neighborhoods with minority populations, on the theory that politically weak sections of the population will be less able to resist. This is a violation of the basic principles of environmental justice.

Modern incinerators are by far the most expensive proposition for waste management; construction costs alone can be in the millions of US dollars. The costs of building and operating an incinerator are inevitably borne by the public. Incineration companies have devised various complicated financial schemes to pigeonhole governments into long-term payments, which have often proven disastrous for local governments. Many towns in the United States have been driven into debt by their incinerators.

Incinerators generate far fewer jobs per ton of waste than alternative technologies and practices, such as recycling. Incinerators also typically crowd out existing informal recycling networks, causing further hardship for the poorest of the poor.

Incinerators are frequently touted as energy producers, as they can generate electricity. However, a detailed analysis of the complete life cycle reveals that incinerators use more energy than they produce. This is because the products that are incinerated must be replaced with new products. Extracting and processing virgin materials and turning them into new products consumes much more energy - and causes more environmental damage - than it would consume to reuse, or manufacture from recycled materials.

The history of waste incineration has mostly taken place in Northern countries; It appears that Southern contexts are likely to be even more problematic for this technology. The lack of monitoring capacity means that incinerators may be even more polluting than they are in the North. Administrative problems, such as irregular budgets and corruption, can interfere with their necessary maintenance. Different physical conditions, such as climate and characteristics of the waste, can make operations difficult or even impossible.

Finally, it must be understood that incinerators are incompatible with other forms of waste management. Incinerators compete with other forms of waste treatment for the same budget and disused materials, and undermine the ethics of segregation at source, which leads to proper waste management.

Section 2: The Alternatives

Section 2 deals with alternatives to incineration. Landfills are not a viable alternative, as they are unsustainable and environmentally problematic. Instead, the alternatives must attack the entire notion of waste disposal, recycling all disused materials back to the human economy or nature itself, and thereby relieving the pressure on natural resources. To do so, three assumptions about waste management must be replaced by three new principles. Instead of assuming that society is going to produce more and more waste, priority should be given to minimizing waste. Discarded items must be segregated so that each fraction can be optimally composted or recycled, rather than the current mixed waste disposal system. And industries must redesign their products to facilitate recycling at the end of their useful life. These principles apply to various kinds of waste.

The mixed nature of the municipal waste stream destroys much of its value. Organics contaminate recyclables, and toxics destroy the usefulness of the other two. Additionally, a growing portion of the waste stream is made up of synthetic materials and products that are not designed to be easily recycled; these need to be redesigned to be compatible with recycling systems, or their use should be phased out.

Municipal waste management programs must be tailored to local conditions to be successful, and no two will be exactly alike. In particular, the programs in the South should not be developed following the exact model of the programs in the North, since the physical, economic, legal and cultural conditions are different. In particular, the informal sector (street dumpsters or garbage collectors) is a significant component of existing waste management systems, and improving their employment conditions should be a central component in any municipal waste management system in the South. A successful example is that of the Zabbaleen in Cairo, where a waste collection and recycling system has been self-organized, diverting 85% of collected waste and employing 40,000 people.

In general, in the North or in the South, systems for treating organic waste are the most important component of a municipal waste management system. Organic materials should be composted, vermicomposted, or given to animals as food, so that their nutrients are returned to the soil. This also ensures a mass of uncontaminated recyclable waste, which is key to the economics of an alternative waste stream. Recycling creates more jobs per ton of waste than any other activity, and generates a mass of materials that can serve as inputs for the industry.

The biggest barrier to recycling, however, is that most products are not designed to be recycled at the end of their useful life. This is so because manufacturers currently have very little financial incentive to do so. The Extension of Producer Responsibility is a political approach that requires producers to receive back their products and packaging. This provides them with the necessary incentive to redesign their products so that they can be recycled at the end of their useful life, and so that they do not contain hazardous materials. However, ERP may not always be enforceable or practical, and in that case it may be appropriate to apply bans on hazardous or problem materials and products.

Using product bans and ERP to force industrial redesign on the one hand, and disaggregation of waste mass, composting, and recycling on the other, alternative systems can divert most discarded municipal materials away from waste. landfills or incinerators. Many communities have reached deviation rates of 50 percent and above, and several have focused their vision on Zero Waste.

Healthcare is the source of a significant amount of waste, some of which can be expensive to handle. But not all healthcare waste is potentially infectious or dangerous. The vast majority of waste produced in healthcare facilities is identical to municipal waste. A rigorous source separation system is essential to keep the small percentage of waste that is potentially infectious or chemically hazardous segregated from the general waste mass.

Potentially infectious waste requires treatment and disposal, and there are several alternative technologies available to incineration to disinfect the waste. These technologies are generally cheaper, less technically complex, and less polluting than incinerators.

A wide variety of chemically hazardous wastes, including drugs, are produced in small quantities in healthcare facilities. These are not suitable for incineration. Some, like mercury, should be eliminated through changes in purchases; others can be recycled; the rest must be carefully collected and returned to the manufacturer. Studies show how these principles work in widely varied settings, such as a maternity clinic in India, and a major urban hospital in the United States.

Waste from industrial processes does not tend to be as mixed as municipal or healthcare waste, but much of it is chemically hazardous. Clean Production is an approach to industrial redesign, which seeks to eliminate dangerous by-products, reduce pollution as a whole, and create products, and consequent waste, that are safe within ecological cycles. The principles of Clean Production are:

- the Precautionary Principle, which advocates caution in the face of scientific uncertainty

- the Preventive Principle, which holds that it is better to prevent damage than to remedy it

- the Democratic Principle, under which all those who may be affected by a decision have the right to participate in the decision-making process

- and the Holistic Principle, which seeks an approach that takes into account the integral life cycle for environmental decision making.

A variety of tools are being used to implement Clean Production, from policy measures such as the right to information and tax reforms, to UN assistance to firms that are committed to Clean Production.

Clean Production cannot respond to the problem of the existing liabilities of hazardous waste, which need some form of alternative treatment to incineration. A number of programs are developing technologies to address this problem. The standards that have evolved from these technologies are:

- high destruction efficiencies

- prevention of all unintentional by-products

- identification of all unintended by-products

- and that there are no uncontrolled emissions

Several emerging technologies meet these criteria, and have been selected in Japan, Canada, and Australia for the destruction of PCBs, and in the United States for the destruction of chemical weapons. The US chemical weapons program is a success, in large part because of strong public participation, which pressured a reluctant government to investigate and eventually select the safest alternative technologies to incineration.

Section 3: Putting out the flames

Section 3 discusses the growing rejection of incineration around the world. Public opposition has eliminated many existing incinerator and incinerator proposals, and is being incorporated into local, national and even international legislation. Popular resistance to incinerators is global: hundreds of public interest organizations in dozens of countries are engaged in the fight against incineration and in favor of alternatives.

In the United States, commercial interests and a perceptible landfill crisis led to a boom in incinerator installations in the 1980s. But the boom spawned a massive grassroots movement that defeated more than 300 proposals to build municipal waste incinerators. Activists fought to raise emissions standards and eliminate subsidies, virtually shutting down the industry by the late 1990s.

In Japan, the most incinerator-intensive country on Earth, resistance to incineration is nearly universal, with hundreds of anti-dioxin groups operating across the nation. Public pressure has resulted in the shutdown of more than 500 incinerators in recent years, but corporations and the Japanese government are still based on heavy investment in the incineration industry.

In Europe, resistance has taken the form of the implementation of alternatives. Some areas have dramatically reduced waste generation, even as populations have risen. As a result, there is very little market for new incinerators in Europe.

In Mozambique, citizens organized beyond class and color boundaries to form the country's first indigenous environmental organization. Widely hailed as the return of civil society after the civil war, the organization was successful in stopping a proposal to incinerate pesticides in a cement kiln in a residential neighborhood.

Elsewhere, activists have had to resort to protests and direct action to stop the cremation. However, public opposition is increasingly being manifested in the law. Jurisdictions in 15 countries have enacted partial bans on incineration, and one country, the Philippines, has banned all forms of incineration.

International law is also beginning to relate to cremation. Three principles of international law - that of precaution, prevention and that of limiting the effects of cross-border transport - conflict with incineration.

Caution is cited in the OSPAR, LRTAP, Bamako and Stockholm Conventions and in the Rio Declaration, among other documents. The precaution argues that incineration should be avoided, because it is effectively an uncontrolled process that generates unknown unintended by-products, and because many of those by-products are already affecting human health.

Extensive references to prevention and minimization are made in international law, more specifically in the Bamako Convention, where incineration is explicitly defined as incompatible with prevention and Clean Production practices.

Limiting the effects of cross-border transport is a common principle of international law, and yet unintentional products derived from incineration, because they are transported globally, clearly contradict this principle.

The London, OSPAR and Bamako Conventions also introduce prohibitions on incineration at sea and in domestic waters.

The Stockholm Convention, while not prohibiting incineration, introduces severe restrictions on its use. Four of the 12 chemicals that the Convention targets are unintentional products derived from incineration, and the Convention calls for their continued minimization and elimination. The Stockholm Convention speaks, significantly, of total releases, not just air releases, and clearly calls on countries to prevent the formation - not just the release - of these chemicals. Since the formation of these four chemicals is inevitable in incineration, this measure sends a clear signal that the end of incineration is marking its time.

* Written by Neil Tangri, Essential Action, USA, for the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives / Global Anti Incineration Alliance (GAIA), 2003.

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