By Madeline Althouse
ABSTRACT: In the linear economy, there are a few methods of waste disposal. Waste incineration to energy is often thought of as a ‘less bad’ alternative to landfill, where waste can be converted to power and heat. However, a look into the carbon footprint of incineration and the role it plays in our economy reveals that there is no ‘better’ way to eliminate waste; a focus must be placed on developing closed-loop systems where waste is recirculated.
In the hierarchy of resource and waste management, landfill takes the bottom spot as the most environmentally damaging. It has also historically been, and continues to be, the primary method of waste disposal. However, the 1990’s saw the emergence of waste incineration to energy plants (WtE) as an alternative (albeit more expensive). Not only were they a way to ‘eliminate’ waste, but energy could be recovered in the process. Since then, WtE has become a mainstream process globally, with a particular prominence in China (Towie, 2019). Here in Canada, 3% of our municipal solid waste (MSW) is burned in WtE incineration facilities (“Section 3: Solid waste”, 2015).
There are multiple layers to understanding WtE incineration. By basic definition, it is the process of burning waste and converting it to energy in the form of power and heat. Typically dealt with by the government on a municipal basis, 11% of the 70% of waste that is accounted for worldwide is incinerated (although not necessarily for energy recovery) (Baker-Brown, 2019). The process of WtE incineration starts with the MSW that is fed into the incinerator and burned. The heat is used to boil water and produce steam which powers a fan or turbine. Seemingly the waste ‘disappears’ when burnt, but in actuality a portion of the initial waste remains and is emitted as ash during the combustion stage, which then is put into landfill (“Waste-to-energy”, n.d.).
The incineration process produces what are commonly known as dioxins and furans which are toxic, persistent, and bio accumulative. Caused predominantly by human activity, incineration is a primary contributor to the release of these emissions into the atmosphere. Statistics Canada reviews the pollutants generated by the municipal incinerators in 2009, and they are listed as follows:
“In 2009, municipal incineration released 677 tonnes of particulate matter (PM) (0.004% of total emissions of PM), 350 tonnes of sulphur oxides (SOx) (0.02% of total emissions of SOx), 1,364 tonnes of nitrogen oxides (NOx) (0.06% of total emissions of NOx), 602 tonnes of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (0.002% of total emissions of VOCs), 1,330 tonnes of carbon monoxide (CO) (0.01% of total emissions of CO) and 19 tonnes of ammonia (NH3) (0.004% of total emissions of NH3) into the atmosphere” (“Section 3: Solid waste”, 2015).
The carbon footprint of incineration is undeniably adverse, but the question remains does the end justify the means? Sweden is among the top countries where waste is disposed of through WtE incineration. 32 facilities heat 800,000 homes and provides 250,000 with electricity (Delarosa, 2018). This is perhaps an incentive to use incineration as opposed to landfill, and in terms of waste disposal, WtE incineration does have its benefits. However, taking a step back and evaluating its role in the economy unveils issues that stem from the linear systems itself.
In Duncan Baker-Brown’s book The Re-Use Atlas, the concept of ‘less bad’ is frequently discussed. Incineration is categorized as a waste management/disposal method that is a better option than landfill environmentally. That is, it is a ‘less bad’ alternative. The linear economy insists that products and materials have a lifespan that ends in waste. The investment into waste disposal methods such as incineration perpetuates this linear system and ‘throwaway’ culture in general. Especially with WtE, a reliance on this chain is established in order to keep producing energy and waste is food for the incinerator. Ultimately, the discussion of WtE incineration and its carbon footprint centres around how waste disposal has been developed to attempt to make bad things better, which is all that the linear economy allows for. In a circular economy, there is no waste. Resources are continually re-circulated, thereby avoiding any type of disposal. In this regard, there is no ‘better’ or ‘less bad’ method of waste disposal because the goal should be to stop producing waste in the first place. Focus should be placed on investing in resource management in which products flow in a closed-loop, being used and reused.
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Madeline Althouse is a third year Interior Design student who maintains that it is her duty to strive for a sustainable lifestyle on both a personal and professional level.