What is Waste Incineration?

Incineration is a method of waste treatment involving the burning of organic materials found in waste. Incineration and other high-temperature waste management processes are called “thermal treatment.” 

Particularly, it involves converting waste materials into ash, flue gas, and heat. The ash mostly consists of inorganic components of waste and can be in the shape of solid lumps or particulates carried by the flue gas. The flue gases are supposed to be cleaned of particulate and gaseous contaminants before being released into the air. Sometimes, the heat generated is used in useful ways, like in producing electricity.

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Incineration plants can reduce the mass of waste from 95% to 96%. The decrease in waste is determined by the recovery level and decomposition of substances. Even though incineration does not substitute the need for landfills, it has been able to reduce the quantity of waste in landfills.

Incineration has numerous benefits, especially in terms of destroying contaminant medical wastes and other life-risking garbage. Also, incineration largely utilizes waste-to-energy technology. 

In Japan, for example, thermal treatment is very popular since they have a shortage of land. Plus, the energy produced by incineration plants is in high demand in nations such as Sweden and Denmark. However, incinerators also have their downside. Let’s have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of incineration.

Advantages of Waste Incineration

1. Decreases Quantity of Waste

Incinerators can decrease the quantity of waste by 95% and reduce the solid quantity of the original waste by 80-85% depending on the components that were in solid waste. Therefore incineration reduces the dependency on landfills.

Hence, even though incinerators do not completely get rid of dumping ground, they definitely decrease the quantity of land needed. For nations that are small in size and with a shortage of land like Japan, this is noteworthy since landfills take up large amounts of land required for other productive uses.

2. Efficient Waste Management

Incineration plays a vital role in making waste management easier and more efficient. Incineration can burn up to 90% of the total waste generated and sometimes even more. However, landfills only allow organic decomposition without making much difference, and non-organic waste keeps accumulating.

3. Production of Heat and Power

Incineration plants generate energy from waste that can be used to generate electricity or heat. During the 1950s, energy costs increased considerably.

So a lot of countries incorporated the heat and energy produced from waste incinerators for the generation of power by using steam turbines. It can be used to power the needs of people living nearby.

On average, a single facility can burn up to 300 million tons of garbage every year, converting it into power and, at the same time, reducing the load on coal-fired power plants, which of course, are a disaster for the environment.

Moreover, Europe and Japan have now integrated incinerators into modern heating systems. For example, Sweden generates 8% of its heating needs from waste incinerators. Furthermore, other countries that have cold weather utilize the heat from the incinerators for warming their homes and places of work in areas near the plant.

4. Reduction of Pollution

Research has shown that solid waste incinerators are less likely to pollute the environment than landfills. One particular study done during a 1994 lawsuit in the US showed that a waste incinerator location was more environment-friendly compared to a landfill.

The research discovered that the landfill was releasing higher quantities of greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxides, dioxin, hydrocarbons, and non-methane organic compounds. 

Landfills also leach poisonous chemicals into the water below, thus contaminating underground water systems.

5. Incinerators Have Filters For Trapping Pollutants

The main problem concerning the incineration of solid waste was the release of hazardous compounds, particularly dioxin. Nonetheless, up to date incinerator plants use filters to trap hazardous gases and particulate dioxin.

The current incineration plants operate within the required pollution limits recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency and international protocols.

6. Saves on Transportation of Waste

Incineration plants can be near cities or towns. This is advantageous since it means waste does not have to be driven for long distances for dumping. It significantly reduces the cost of transport; the money can then be spent on the wellbeing of the community and sustaining the growth of a city or district. 

Additionally, it reduces the harmful gases released by vehicles during transportation, thus drastically reducing the overall carbon footprint.

7. Provides Better Control Over Odor and Noise

Incineration plants can provide less bad smells because waste gets burnt, unlike landfills, where waste is allowed to decay, thereby emitting unpleasant smells, which cause air pollution.

The production of methane in landfills may also lead to explosions that cause noise pollution, which is unheard of when it comes to the use of incineration plants.

8. Prevents the Production of Methane Gas

In landfills, when the waste is decaying, methane gas is generated which, if not controlled, may explode, causing further global warming. Unlike landfills, incineration plants do not produce methane, therefore making them safer.

9. Eliminates Harmful Germs and Chemicals

Incineration plants function at very high temperatures that can destroy germs and chemicals that are harmful. Thus, it is a very effective method when it comes to eliminating clinical waste.

10. Incinerators Operate in Any Weather

Another advantage of incinerators is that they can function in any type of weather. For instance, during a rainy season, waste cannot be dumped in a landfill because the rain will possibly wash down poisonous chemicals into the ground and consequently create leachate, thus contaminating the underground water as well as the neighboring land.

Waste can also not be dumped when it is windy since it will get blown into the surroundings. On the other hand, incinerators are not limited to weather changes since they burn waste without leakages. Incineration plants also function 24 hours a day and are more efficient in managing waste compared to landfills.

11. Effective Metal Recycling

When incinerators are burning waste, the metals still remain whole because they have a high melting point. After the process of burning waste is done, the workers remove the remaining metal and recycle it. This eliminates the need for separating any metal before waste disposal.

When garbage is taken to a landfill, it is usually not organized, which results in wasting of resources that could have been recycled. Therefore, using an incinerator makes it easier to remove and reuse metals.

12. It has a Computerized Monitoring System

Governments, cities, institutions, or private waste management companies can purchase an incinerator that comes with a computer device to allow for the troubleshooting of most problems. This will enable operators to discover a problem before it becomes more serious and much more expensive to repair. 

A computer will also make operators work easily as they will be able to track the operational efficiency of the incinerator plant.

13. Uses of Ash

The ash that comes from the combustion of waste can be used in construction, get shipped or even landfilled. Shipping of ash is cheaper than transporting of unburned trash; it will also reduce liability issues. 

14. Occupies Relatively Small Space

Incineration systems occupy relatively small space. Therefore these are a convenient and practical solution for managing waste.

15. Uncontaminated Groundwater

Every time precipitation falls on landfills, a thick slurry of liquid garbage like pea-soup is formed called leachate. This contaminated mixture can penetrate underground aquifers and add pollutants such as unsafe quantities of salts, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, also other toxic or corrosive chemicals or substances found in household trash.

Unlike landfills, incineration doesn’t add any toxic elements to the groundwater. Also, it helps prevent leakage of chemicals from landfills into the environment, and the soil getting averted.

Disadvantages of Waste Incineration

1. It is Expensive

The installation of an incineration plant is an expensive process. Particularly, the costs of constructing the infrastructure to the costs of operating the incineration plants are very high.

Besides, an incineration plant requires trained personnel and devoted staff to man its operation. Incinerator plants also need regular maintenance, which adds to the already high costs of operating it.

2. Pollutes the Environment

Incinerators produce smoke during the burning process. The smoke produced includes acid gases, carcinogen dioxin, particulates, heavy metals, and nitrogen oxide. These gases are poisonous to the environment. Research has shown that dioxin produced in the plant is a cancer forming chemical.

3. Damaging Public Health

According to (CAP, 2013) research, the communities where incinerators plants are built, its long term effects come in the form of health hazards such as cancer, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, neurological problems and other health effects that are known to occur at very low exposures to many of the metals, and pollutants released by incineration facilities. 

The respiratory problems, increased cancer rates, reproductive abnormalities and other health effects are common in areas where incinerator plants are built.

4. The Possibility of Long-term Problems

Incineration does not encourage recycling and waste reduction. This is not a calculated strategy for any society. The point of focus should be on reducing waste and recycling most of it.

Merely burning most of the waste without recycling some of it will only cause environmental damage because it may encourage more waste production.

5. Ash Waste Can Potentially Harm People and the Environment

Even though the ash that remains from the process can be comparatively small in quantity, it contains several poisons and heavy metals which require further treatment. If not disposed of correctly, it can cause serious harm to the public and the environment.

6. Environmental Racism

It refers to any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race or color.

The areas of poor communities where the community has no strong economic power and have no strong personality figure that could stand for them, these so-called waste-to-energy plants are commonly built. This situation is very common in minority races, and these are grave diggers in disguise.

Incineration or landfill, which is better?

When we compare the overall impact of incineration plants on the environment to landfills, incineration still seems to be a “second-best” solution, better than the worst—however, a long way from the best we can do.

Definitely, the ‘4Rs’—reusing, recycling, repurposing and reducing offer a more effective answer to our ongoing garbage disposal dilemma. Still, an ounce of incinerated trash is undoubtedly easier to manage than a pound of raw garbage.

Recycling and waste reduction must be considered as our first preference to reduce our overall waste stream, and this must include composting our organic waste instead of throwing it away. Many of the materials that are thrown away have the potential to be converted into new items, and not reusing these materials is a waste of resources.

But there may still be some things we can’t reuse or recycle no matter how hard we try, and then incineration might be the most sensible choice when disposing of these products.

In locations where space is scarce and highly in demand and the authority readily wants to invest in state-of-the-art technology, municipal waste incineration plants are undoubtedly a superior alternative to landfills, and that may keep them relevant for a long period.

The waste incineration in developing countries is neither practical nor economical as in developed countries. A high proportion of waste in developing countries is composed of kitchen scraps that are organic waste, and it is composed of higher moisture content (40 to 70 percent) than waste in industrialized countries (20 to 40 percent), which is more difficult to burn. 

Ideally, this waste should be composted and utilized to enrich the soil in sustainable agriculture systems.

However, if we exploited every available opportunity to recycle the plastic, rubber, metal, glass, and other non-organic waste that gets discarded, and composted as much of our excess organic matter as we conceivably could, we could cut our garbage production by as much as 80 percent as per zero waste supporters.

It would be ideal if we do not produce any waste that endures rather developing an entire system where materials are returned and utilized again in some way as nature does, and that is what we must learn to do.

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