Incineration

Incineration is potentially a better method of garbage disposal than landfills. It can generate energy while reducing the amount of waste by up to 90 percent in volume and 75 percent in weight. At present, 14-15 percent of our solid waste is dealt with in this way, in about 400 incinerators designed for either municipal nonhazardous waste or for hazardous waste. Those designed for hazardous waste require special devices to remove toxic chemicals from gases produced before they exit the smokestacks. Unfortunately, solid-waste incinerators are, on average, substantially more expensive to build and operate than landfills, and sometimes are more expensive than recycling collection and processing. Despite the financial burden, more than 170 municipalities in the United States have decided to bear the comparatively high costs imposed by operating incinerators that have already been built.

Why have they done this? One answer is that the incinerator plants are already built and construction costs are a significant part of an incineration operation. Another explanation is that, despite environmental dogma, a wide-ranging study published in 1997 found that incineration may be environmentally friendlier than recycling. One reason for this surprising finding is the value of energy generated by incineration. Most of the 170 incineration plants in operation are designed to generate electricity by allowing the burning trash to heat water in a boiler to produce steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. Another is that recycling uses large amounts of energy and creates pollution, especially when the solid waste is transported to the neighborhood recycling bin and from there to recycling mills. Much gasoline is burned for each ton of waste carried during these repeated trips. Then, the recycling mill itself uses large amounts of energy during processing of the waste stream.

There is a constant and acrimonious debate about the relative "greenness" of incineration and recycling. At present, the recycling enthusiasts are in the lead. They point out that many older incineration plants are major sources of atmospheric toxic materials such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and dioxins. Municipal incinerators produce more that half the dioxins emitted in the United States. If the poisonous materials are captured before leaving the smokestacks they end up in the ash, which must then be disposed of by encasing them in an inert solid material of some sort.

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Responses

  • Wegahta
    Does incineration lead to global warming?
    2 months ago

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