The Effects of Waste Incinerators

Updated April 17, 2017

Burning trash rather than dumping it in landfill sites is becoming increasingly popular with municipal authorities as an answer to their garbage problems. In the United States, about 15 per cent of all waste is incinerated. Waste incinerators burn trash at high temperatures in furnaces, producing large volumes of gas and ash in the process. Although waste incinerators operate within strict pollution controls, proposals for new incineration plants often prompt local controversy because of fears over the health effects of pollutants. Waste incinerators can also bring benefits. Many incinerators use hot waste gases to drive steam turbines and generate electricity. According to the Citizens' Clearinghouse on Waste Management, waste incineration reduces the volume of garbage going to landfill by 90 per cent.

Environmental Effects

Waste incineration units produce one-third of the greenhouse gases released by landfill sites dealing with the same amount of garbage. Burning waste to generate power also releases less greenhouse gas than burning fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, because it does not release stored carbon.

Health Impacts

People are exposed to toxic emissions from waste incinerators by breathing air or consuming contaminated food and water. Although there is no conclusive proof that waste incineration damages health, several studies cited by incineration opponents indicate a link. This research includes a 1996 British study, which found that people living near municipal incinerators face an increased risk of developing several different cancers. The Ministry of the Environment in Ontario, Canada, found that incinerators release chemicals that can cause nerve damage and lung disease. In Japan, scientists discovered that infant mortality rates in districts close to waste incinerators were 40 per cent to 70 per cent higher than normal. However, pollution control technology at waste incinerators has improved since these studies were carried out.

Disposal Costs

Waste incinerators cost around £65 million to build, significantly more than landfill dumps. Much of the garbage burnt by incinerators ends up as ash, including toxic materials captured by the incinerator's pollution filters. This ash is disposed of at specialist landfill sites for hazardous waste. According to the Citizens' Clearinghouse on Waste Management, this costs 10 times more than disposing of garbage at regular municipal landfill sites.

Recycling Effects

Waste incineration opponents believe that the money spent on incineration plants would be better invested in recycling. They also worry that incineration can reduce recycling, because both systems require the same type of garbage to remain economically viable. However, some European countries successfully run recycling and incineration schemes side by side. In the Netherlands, 28 per cent of garbage is recycled and 31 per cent of trash is incinerated.

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About the Author

Adrian Grahams began writing professionally in 1989 after training as a newspaper reporter. His work has been published online and in various newspapers, including "The Cornish Times" and "The Sunday Independent." Grahams specializes in technology and communications. He holds a Bachelor of Science, postgraduate diplomas in journalism and website design and is studying for an MBA.