One of the most potent environmental concerns during the last 20-30 years has related to the release of dioxins into the atmosphere. Dioxins are undesirable by-products of the manufacture of a variety of chemicals such as pesticides and disinfectants, but one particular compound called 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin has come to be identified as dioxin. This material was thought to be extremely toxic to humans, though more recent studies suggest earlier results were exaggerated.

Dioxins can be found in urban waste and there is also a danger that the compounds can be formed during waste combustion if the process is not carefully controlled. Some early waste incineration plants did not control the emissions sufficiently carefully and this led to instances of widespread contamination. Such instances have coloured the perception of waste-to-energy plants ever since.

Dioxin emission levels are now closely regulated and emissions have fallen. In the USA, the emissions of dioxins from large waste-to-energy facilities fell from 4260 g (toxic equivalent) in 1990 to 12 g (toxic equivalent) in 2000.12 The European emission limit for dioxins is 0.1ng/Nm3. Power-from-waste plants built in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century should be capable of reducing the emission level to one-tenth of this.

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