Incineration

Waste Incineration (a.k.a. “Waste-to-Energy”)

Our Pub­li­ca­tions:

Incin­er­a­tion is the most expen­sive and pol­lut­ing way to make ener­gy or to man­age waste. It pro­duces the fewest jobs com­pared to reuse, recy­cling and com­post­ing the same mate­ri­als. It is the dirt­i­est way to man­age waste — far more pol­lut­ing than land­fills. It is also the dirt­i­est way to pro­duce ener­gy — far more pol­lut­ing than coal burning.

Most expen­sive way to man­age waste

Accord­ing to the waste indus­try itself, incin­er­a­tion has always been more expen­sive than land­fills. They are inher­ent­ly more com­pli­cat­ed to oper­ate and the cost gap increas­es over time as the enor­mous expense of pol­lu­tion con­trols keeps incin­er­a­tors expen­sive as air reg­u­la­tions grad­u­al­ly tight­en. The cost of the 1,500 ton/day incin­er­a­tor pro­posed for Fred­er­ick, MD (defeat­ed in Nov 2014) climbed over $500 mil­lion — actu­al­ly around $1 bil­lion, includ­ing the inter­est on the bonds. A strong zero waste pro­gram could be devel­oped for a frac­tion of the cost, divert­ing at least as much waste from land­fills, as incin­er­a­tors only reduce the ton­nage going to land­fills by 70% (about 90% by vol­ume). Read more…

Most expen­sive way to make energy

Trash incin­er­a­tion is the most expen­sive way to make ener­gy, even though they get paid to take their fuel. This is true for the cost to build incin­er­a­tors as well as the cost to oper­ate and main­tain them. Incin­er­a­tion is 2.7 times as expen­sive than coal to build and 11 times as expen­sive to oper­ate and main­tain. Nuclear pow­er is one of the most expen­sive forms of ener­gy and trash incin­er­a­tion is still 1.5 times as expen­sive to build and 4.2 times as expen­sive to oper­ate and main­tain than nuclear. This is accord­ing to the lat­est (April 2013) analy­sis done for the Ener­gy Infor­ma­tion Admin­is­tra­tion. Read more…

Incin­er­a­tion is not “waste-to-ener­gy”

Waste-to-Ener­gy is a PR term. Trash-to-steam is also a lie (there is more in trash than water, thus more in incin­er­a­tor pol­lu­tion than water vapor). The real­i­ty is that incin­er­a­tors waste 3–5 times more ener­gy than they recov­er, if you com­pare the ener­gy pro­duced through incin­er­a­tion to the embod­ied ener­gy lost by not recy­cling and com­post­ing those mate­ri­als, which must then be pro­duced again from raw resources. Read more…

Dirt­i­est way to man­age waste (worse than landfills)

The clean­er you make the air (with more pol­lu­tion con­trols), the more tox­ic you make the ash (as the high­ly tox­ic fly ash caught in the con­trols is mixed with the bot­tom ash before land­fill­ing). For every 100 tons burned in an incin­er­a­tor, Incin­er­a­tion makes land­fills more tox­ic by dump­ing high­ly con­cen­trat­ed tox­ic ash into the land­fill instead of the less-tox­ic larg­er vol­ume of unburned waste. Air emis­sions from incin­er­a­tors far exceeds air pol­lu­tion from land­fills, and ground­wa­ter con­t­a­m­i­na­tion from ash land­fills is like­ly to be worse than from land­fills full of unburned trash due to tox­ic met­als being more avail­able, and due to new pol­lu­tants hav­ing been cre­at­ed dur­ing combustion.

A 2017 life cycle analy­sis of incin­er­a­tion vs. land­fills showed that, for Wash­ing­ton, DC, incin­er­at­ing trash in Fair­fax Coun­ty, Vir­ginia was worse by most mea­sures than truck­ing the trash 2–4 times as far to south­east­ern Vir­ginia land­fills. On a major­i­ty of the 10 envi­ron­men­tal mea­sures eval­u­at­ed, incin­er­a­tion turned out to be worse than land­fill­ing, even count­ing the extra emis­sions from diesel trucks haul­ing waste fur­ther to reach land­fills. In fact, emis­sions from truck­ing were insignif­i­cant com­pared to those from the waste facil­i­ties. Incin­er­a­tion proved to be worse than land­fills when it comes to glob­al warm­ing pol­lu­tion, and pol­lu­tion from nitro­gen oxides, par­tic­u­late mat­ter, tox­ic chem­i­cal releas­es, acid gas­es, and smog. On a 7th mea­sure (eutroph­i­ca­tion), they were about tied, and on three of the small­est mea­sures of types of chem­i­cal releas­es, land­fills proved to be worse. See our fact­sheet on how incin­er­a­tors com­pare to land­fills (and coal). To get direct to the sum­ma­ry data, see slides 26–59 in this pre­sen­ta­tion.

Dirt­i­est way to pro­duce energy

To make the same amount of ener­gy as a coal pow­er plant, trash incin­er­a­tors release 28 times as much diox­in than coal, 2.5 times as much car­bon diox­ide (CO2), twice as much car­bon monox­ide, three times as much nitro­gen oxides (NOx), 6–14 times as much mer­cury, near­ly six times as much lead and 70% more sul­fur diox­ides. (See doc­u­men­ta­tion here: Trash incin­er­a­tion worse than coal)

Incin­er­a­tion by any name (includ­ing var­i­ous staged incin­er­a­tion or “waste con­ver­sion” tech­nolo­gies, such as plas­ma arc, gasi­fi­ca­tion or pyrol­y­sis) is not clean or safe, despite indus­try claims. Even with the increased require­ments for pol­lu­tion con­trols that came into effect since 2000, incin­er­a­tors are STILL dirt­i­er than coal in terms of air emis­sions. Incin­er­a­tors still turn trash into tox­ic ash and tox­ic air emis­sions. This real­i­ty is inescapable, as even with the most mod­ern pol­lu­tion con­trols, pol­lu­tion lev­els still exceed coal by near­ly all measures.

Accord­ing to the lat­est EPA data, trash incin­er­a­tion releas­es 2.5 times as much CO2 than coal per unit of ener­gy pro­duced. Even if you dis­count the “bio­genic” frac­tion*, burn­ing garbage is still 50% worse than coal for CO2 emis­sions. Con­tin­u­ing the use of exist­ing trash incin­er­a­tors or sup­port­ing the cre­ation of new ones under­mines any effort by a com­mu­ni­ty to “green” itself and to reduce glob­al warm­ing emis­sions, if they’re account­ed for properly.

(* Dis­count­ing the “bio­genic” frac­tion dis­re­gards IPCC account­ing pro­to­cols that advise that such smoke­stack emis­sions can­not be assumed to be “car­bon neu­tral.” Such dis­count­ing also dis­re­gards the fact that nat­ur­al car­bon seques­tra­tion and stor­age capac­i­ties are sig­nif­i­cant­ly dimin­ished, and that trees are not being replant­ed specif­i­cal­ly to off­set and store these emis­sions (rather than being cut back down to sup­ply more paper, crops, etc.). Dis­count­ing these emis­sions assumes that trees and crops instant­ly suck up the extra pulse of CO2 released by burn­ing paper, food scraps and oth­er organ­ic mate­r­i­al in waste instead of tak­ing sev­er­al decades to do so, as they do in nat­ur­al eco­log­i­cal cycles. The decades it would take to over­come the CO2 emis­sions from burn­ing trash and “bio­mass” is time that we do not have if we are to avoid crit­i­cal glob­al warm­ing tip­ping points.)

Bad for recy­cling and composting

The huge eco­nom­ic resources that need to be put into incin­er­a­tion are bet­ter spent on zero waste pro­grams, which can reduce the amount of waste going to land­fill by more than the 70% reduc­tion in ton­nage that incin­er­a­tors accom­plish — and can do so at low­er cost. Once a incin­er­a­tor is built, “put-or-pay” con­tracts dis­cour­age recy­cling and com­post­ing by charg­ing local gov­ern­ments the same, even if they pro­duce less waste.

Trash incin­er­a­tors are unpop­u­lar and declining

No new com­mer­cial trash incin­er­a­tor has been sit­ed, built and oper­at­ed at a new site in the U.S. since 1995. One large new one, how­ev­er, was built in West Palm Beach, Flori­da in 2015, adja­cent to an exist­ing large incin­er­a­tor. Some small­er ones have also been expand­ed or rebuilt. Despite hun­dreds of attempts to build new incin­er­a­tors, com­mu­ni­ty oppo­si­tion has been the main force pre­vent­ing them from being built. Over­all, the num­ber of oper­at­ing incin­er­a­tors in the U.S. has declined. In 1991, there were 187 trash incin­er­a­tors in the U.S. At the turn of the cen­tu­ry, there were 114. As of ear­ly 2021, not count­ing some tru­ly tiny ones, there are just 71, the low­est num­ber since 1981. See our fact­sheet on incin­er­a­tor clo­sures.

Num­ber of Com­mer­cial Trash Incin­er­a­tors Oper­at­ing in the U.S.

Number of Commercial Trash Incinerators Operating in the U.S.

Gen­er­al resources against incineration:

U.S. Trash Incin­er­a­tor Lists and Maps

Incin­er­a­tor-relat­ed issues:

Flu­idized Bed Com­bus­tors (FBCs)

Incin­er­a­tors-in-Dis­guise (Gasi­fi­ca­tion / Plas­ma / Pyrolysis):

Gasi­fi­ca­tion

  • Litany of Gasi­fi­ca­tion Fail­ures” (2016 com­pi­la­tion by UK With­out Incin­er­a­tion Net­work)
  • Eval­u­a­tion of Emis­sions from Ther­mal Con­ver­sion Tech­nolo­gies Pro­cess­ing Munic­i­pal Sol­id Waste and Bio­mass [direct link] (2009 report by Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at River­side for the BioEn­er­gy Pro­duc­ers Asso­ci­a­tion; includes glob­al list of gasi­fi­ca­tion facil­i­ties at end of report)
  • Com­ments on the pro­posed mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the Mass­a­chu­setts Sol­id Waste Man­age­ment Plan to lift the mora­to­ri­um on sol­id waste incin­er­a­tion and allow devel­op­ment of gasi­fi­ca­tion pow­er plants, Part­ner­ship for Pol­i­cy Integrity
  • Coal Gasi­fi­ca­tion / IGCC
  • Poor Track Record of Trash Gasi­fi­ca­tion Plants (Sept 2002 letter)
  • Trash Gasi­fi­ca­tion Emis­sions (April 2002 letter)
  • EPA Report: Gasi­fi­er Ash Con­t­a­m­i­nates Ground Water

    One myth around the sol­id wastes pro­duced by gasi­fi­ca­tion is that they are a glass-like “slag” that nev­er leach­es. Of course, even con­ven­tion­al trash incin­er­a­tors pre­tend that their high­ly tox­ic and leach­able ash nev­er leach­es. With gasi­fi­ca­tion sys­tems, they still pro­duce ash that can leach tox­ic chem­i­cals into the ground­wa­ter where it is dumped. Unlike con­ven­tion­al incin­er­a­tor ash (which most­ly goes to land­fills), gasi­fi­ca­tion pro­mot­ers often claim that they’ll sell their “slag” as build­ing mate­r­i­al, soil amend­ment or aggre­gate. The ash is still full of tox­ic met­als, halo­gens and radioac­tive ele­ments that were present in the waste and which can’t be destroyed. Data from coal gasi­fi­ca­tion slag pro­duced in a coal gasi­fi­ca­tion facil­i­ty in North Dako­ta shows seri­ous ground­wa­ter con­t­a­m­i­na­tion from leach­ing and is not­ed in this EPA report on ground­wa­ter “dam­age cas­es” from ash/slag dis­pos­al sites. See pages 82–83.

Plas­ma Arc

  • “A Reg­u­la­to­ry Overview of Plas­ma Tech­nol­o­gy: Report of the Plas­ma Tech­nol­o­gy Sub­group Inter­state Tech­nol­o­gy and Reg­u­la­to­ry Coop­er­a­tion Work Group” (June 1996)

Pyrol­y­sis

Cel­lu­losic Ethanol, Fis­ch­er-Trop­sch Coal-to-Liq­uids, Ther­mal Depoly­mer­iza­tion and Waste-to-Fuels:

  • For many of these alter­na­tive types of incin­er­a­tors and con­ver­sion process­es (waste-to-fuels), see some of the basic argu­ments forth in our alter­na­tive fuels fact­sheet.

Tire Incin­er­a­tion:

Bio­mass and Land­fill gas:

Cement Kilns:


Incin­er­a­tion Definitions

The indus­try tries hard to pre­tend that plas­ma, gasi­fi­ca­tion and pyrol­y­sis are not forms of incin­er­a­tion. How­ev­er, the Euro­pean Union and the Unit­ed States have defined all these tech­nolo­gies as forms of incin­er­a­tion (empha­sis added).

The Euro­pean Union defines incin­er­a­tors as follows:

‘incin­er­a­tion plant’ means any sta­tion­ary or mobile tech­ni­cal unit and equip­ment ded­i­cat­ed to the ther­mal treat­ment of wastes with or with­out recov­ery of the com­bus­tion heat gen­er­at­ed. This includes the incin­er­a­tion by oxi­da­tion of waste as well as oth­er ther­mal treat­ment process­es such as pyrol­y­sis, gasi­fi­ca­tion or plas­ma process­es in so far as the sub­stances result­ing from the treat­ment are sub­se­quent­ly incinerated. 

This def­i­n­i­tion cov­ers the site and the entire incin­er­a­tion plant includ­ing all incin­er­a­tion lines, waste recep­tion, stor­age, on site pre­treat­ment facil­i­ties, waste-fuel and air-sup­ply sys­tems, boil­er, facil­i­ties for the treat­ment of exhaust gas­es, on-site facil­i­ties for treat­ment or stor­age of residues and waste water, stack, devices and sys­tems for con­trol­ling incin­er­a­tion oper­a­tions, record­ing and mon­i­tor­ing incin­er­a­tion conditions; 

‘co-incin­er­a­tion plant’ means any sta­tion­ary or mobile plant whose main pur­pose is the gen­er­a­tion of ener­gy or pro­duc­tion of mate­r­i­al prod­ucts and: — which uses wastes as a reg­u­lar or addi­tion­al fuel; or — in which waste is ther­mal­ly treat­ed for the pur­pose of disposal.

Arti­cle 3 of Direc­tive 2000/76/EC of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment and the Coun­cil of 4 on the incin­er­a­tion of waste (see page 4)

For more info on the EU’s Waste Incin­er­a­tion Direc­tive, see the

UK Envi­ron­ment Agen­cy’s web­site on waste incineration.


In the Unit­ed States, the def­i­n­i­tion of “munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tor” (trash incin­er­a­tor) includes gasi­fi­ca­tion and pyrolysis:

In Feb 11, 1991, U.S. EPA pub­lished reg­u­la­tions in the Fed­er­al Reg­is­ter (56 FR 5488) that state:

Munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tor or MWC or MWC unit means any device that com­busts, sol­id, liq­uid, or gasi­fied MSW includ­ing, but not lim­it­ed to, field-erect­ed incin­er­a­tors (with or with­out heat recov­ery), mod­u­lar incin­er­a­tors (starved air or excess air), boil­ers (i.e., steam gen­er­at­ing units), fur­naces (whether sus­pen­sion-fired, grate-fired, mass-fired, or flu­idized bed-fired) and gasification/combustion units. This does not include com­bus­tion units, engines, or oth­er devices that com­bust land­fill gas­es col­lect­ed by land­fill gas col­lec­tion systems.

[MSW = Munic­i­pal Sol­id Waste (house­hold and com­mer­cial trash)]

This reg­u­la­tion (40 CFR 60.51a) was lat­er revised on Dec. 19, 1995 to include pyrol­y­sis, mak­ing gasi­fi­ca­tion part of a new pyrol­y­sis definition:

Munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tor, MWC, or munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tor unit: (1) Means any set­ting or equip­ment that com­busts sol­id, liq­uid, or gasi­fied MSW includ­ing, but not lim­it­ed to, field-erect­ed incin­er­a­tors (with or with­out heat recov­ery), mod­u­lar incin­er­a­tors (starved-air or excess-air), boil­ers (i.e., steam-gen­er­at­ing units), fur­naces (whether sus­pen­sion-fired, grate-fired, mass-fired, air cur­tain incin­er­a­tors, or flu­idized bed-fired), and pyrolysis/combustion units. Munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tors do not include pyrolysis/combustion units locat­ed at plastics/ rub­ber recy­cling units (as spec­i­fied in § 60.50a(k) of this sec­tion). Munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tors do not include inter­nal com­bus­tion engines, gas tur­bines, or oth­er com­bus­tion devices that com­bust land­fill gas­es col­lect­ed by land­fill gas col­lec­tion systems. 

Pyrolysis/combustion unit means a unit that pro­duces gas­es, liq­uids, or solids through the heat­ing of MSW, and the gas­es, liq­uids, or solids pro­duced are com­bust­ed and emis­sions vent­ed to the atmosphere.

If there is any doubt that a “munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tor” is an incin­er­a­tor, the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency clear­ly states that they’re the same thing: “A munic­i­pal waste incin­er­a­tor ‘com­busts’ sol­id waste and thus is func­tion­al­ly syn­ony­mous with munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tor.” See: http://www.epa.gov/ttn/nsr/gen/rm_2.html

Regard­ing land­fill gas burn­ers: while not reg­u­lat­ed as “munic­i­pal waste com­bus­tors,” land­fill gas burn­ers have also been referred to as incin­er­a­tors by

those in the industry,

the trade press, coun­ty waste facil­i­ty man­agers, and the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s Nation­al Renew­able Ener­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry.

Also, U.S. EPA Haz­ardous Waste Reg­u­la­tions (40 CFR 260.10) also state that plas­ma arc is an incin­er­a­tion technology:

Incin­er­a­tor means any enclosed device that: 

(2) Meets the def­i­n­i­tion of infrared incin­er­a­tor or plas­ma arc incin­er­a­tor.

Infrared incin­er­a­tor means any enclosed device that uses elec­tric pow­ered resis­tance heaters as a source of radi­ant heat fol­lowed by an after­burn­er using con­trolled flame com­bus­tion and which is not list­ed as an indus­tri­al furnace. 

Plas­ma arc incin­er­a­tor means any enclosed device using a high inten­si­ty elec­tri­cal dis­charge or arc as a source of heat fol­lowed by an after­burn­er using con­trolled flame com­bus­tion and which is not list­ed as an indus­tri­al furnace. 

Indus­tri­al fur­nace means any of the fol­low­ing enclosed devices that are inte­gral com­po­nents of man­u­fac­tur­ing process­es and that use ther­mal treat­ment to accom­plish recov­ery of mate­ri­als or energy: 


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