Photo: Incinerating trash is a waste of resources

Through education and regulation, we can reduce obvious sources and divert more compostable, recyclable and reusable materials away from the dump. It’s simply wasteful to incinerate it. (Credit: Ivan Dervisevic via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Communications Manager

Many urban areas have built or are considering building waste-incineration facilities to generate energy. At first glance, it seems like a win-win. You get rid of "garbage" and acquire a new energy source with fuel that's almost free. But it's a problematic solution, and a complicated issue.

Metro Vancouver has a facility in Burnaby and is planning to build another, and Toronto is also looking at the technology, which has been used elsewhere in the region, with a plant in Brampton and another under construction in Clarington. The practice is especially popular in the European Union, where countries including Sweden and Germany now have to import waste to fuel their generators.

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The term "waste" is correct; there's really no such thing as garbage. And that's one problem with burning it for fuel. Even those who promote the technology would probably agree that the best ways to deal with waste are to reduce, reuse and recycle it. It's astounding how much unnecessary trash we create, through excessive packaging, planned obsolescence, hyperconsumerism and lack of awareness. This is one area where individuals can make a difference, by refusing to buy overpackaged goods and encouraging companies to reduce packaging, and by curbing our desire to always have newer and shinier stuff.

We toss out lots of items that can be reused, repaired or altered for other purposes. As for recycling, we've made great strides, but we still send close to three quarters of our household waste to the landfill. Considering each Canadian produces close to 1,000 kilograms of waste a year, that's a lot of trash! Much of the material that ends up in landfills is usable, compostable or recyclable, including tonnes of plastics.

Turning unsorted and usable trash into a valuable fuel commodity means communities are less likely to choose to reduce, reuse and recycle it. Burning waste can seem easier and less expensive than sorting, diverting and recycling it. But once it's burned, it can never be used for anything else — it's gone!

Incinerating waste also comes with environmental problems. Although modern technologies reduce many air pollutants once associated with the process, burning plastics and other materials still creates emissions that can contain toxins such as mercury, dioxins and furans. As with burning fossil fuels, burning waste — much of which is plastics derived from fossil fuels — also produces carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

Burning waste doesn't make it disappear, either. Beyond the fly ash and pollutants released into the atmosphere, a great deal of toxic "bottom ash" is left over. Metro Vancouver says bottom ash from its Burnaby incinerator is about 17 per cent the weight of the waste burned. That ash must be disposed of, usually in landfills. Metro testing has found high levels of the carcinogenic heavy metal cadmium in bottom ash, sometimes twice the limit allowed for landfills. High lead levels have also been reported.

Incineration is also expensive and inefficient. Once we start the practice, we come to rely on waste as a fuel commodity, and it's tough to go back to more environmentally sound methods of dealing with it. As has been seen in Sweden and Germany, improving efforts to reduce, re-use and recycle can actually result in shortages of waste "fuel"!

It's a complicated issue. We need to find ways to manage waste and to generate energy without relying on diminishing and increasingly expensive supplies of polluting fossil fuels. Sending trash to landfills is clearly not the best solution. But we have better options than landfills and incineration, starting with reducing the amount of waste we produce. Through education and regulation, we can reduce obvious sources and divert more compostable, recyclable and reusable materials away from the dump. It's simply wasteful to incinerate it.

It would be far better to sort trash into organics, recyclables and products that require careful disposal. We could then divert these different streams to minimize our waste impacts and produce new commodities. Organics used in biomass energy systems could help offset fossil fuel use while creating valuable supplies of fertilizers. Diversion and recycling lessen the need to extract new resources and disrupt the environment while creating more value and jobs. That's a win all around!

September 12, 2013

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Dec 09, 2015
5:07 AM

You are so right about the burning. There should be initiatives which are explaining why burning trash is not a good solution. I am trying to live waste free. I have 3 kids and I am proud that I give them a good example. Best regards! ( )

Aug 16, 2015
11:49 AM

Burning discards is a giant waste of valuable resources that took a lot of energy to create, to then generate a small amount of energy through the burning process.

Germany, Denmark and Sweden all made the wrong choices. Now they have addicted their populations to this non sustainable form of energy. Garbage burners undermine recycling and reuse, they undermine waste reduction and waste avoidance initiatives and above all, they thwart the entire process of “better design”.

Waste 2 Energy is a “Waste Of Energy”! This isn’t fear mongering it’s bloody common sense!

May 25, 2015
9:16 PM

What would be worth burning would be plastics to turn them back into oil and actual waste, as in, from our bodies. Instead of sending it down stream and pumping billions of tonnes of chemicals down stream, each home could have an incinerator, and the ash can be used to fertilize the lawn, garden and farm.

The Japanese have been doing it for 8,000 years, until the americans came in in the 1890s that is.

Feb 15, 2014
11:07 AM

Time for some new research into how incineration plants by this organization. Perhaps you should travel to Denmark and Germany and see how it’s being done over there. there are plants in residential neighborhoods that people actually want to live next to due to the abundance of heat that can be piped into homes.

Environmentalists need to stop causing panic in the population about topics such as this. Learn the new facts that are out there and stop using stats from 10 — 15 year old plants and look at the cutting edge that is being used in Europe.

Oct 30, 2013
3:20 PM

Most of the time I agree with Mr Suzuki but this article has some issues. I have not yet made a decision one way or the other, so I look for for more information. I apply critical thinking skills to the ‘facts’, hopefully the truth will prevail.

I disagree with the rationale when insinuating that WTE stops recycle. That is like saying landfills stops recycle, they are not mutually dependant. The fact that waste is now a ‘fuel’ may be true but saying that is promoting less recycling is ludicrous. That is like saying as the price of recycled paper rises, waste is encouraged!

Yes — there are things like mercury, cadmium and a lot more. Improving recycling is the solution. If the material is recovered in recycle process, it stays out of the waste stream! When recycling fails, the materials go into the ‘waste’ stream. At least the article stipulates that both sides still promote the 7 ‘R’s.

Let’s look at both options: WTE or Landfill.

Oct 10, 2013
11:36 PM

The Isle of Man was sold a bill of goods and installed an incinerator that was going to ‘end the need for a new landfill’ (the old one was just about full). Guess what. The thing broke down twice and it took many months each time to repair it. The emissions were higher ‘the advertised’ many times. They were told it would incinerate 80% of the island’s garbage but it acutally only achevied less then 40%. And at the end of the day they still had to enlarge the landfill to take care of all the waste that was generated by the incinerator and by all the waste that wasn’t suitable to be incinerated.

But it is pretty to look at.

Sep 25, 2013
7:14 PM

I find David’s rationale lacking. While incineration is less than ideal, plasma arc gasification (pyrolysis) is a different process that is far more desirable than landfill. Nothing is more wasteful than discarding materials to landfill. If materials are not reduced, reused or recycled then energy recovery is preferable to discarding. This is what happens to waste in biological and ecological systems. David’s analysis of the situation in Europe is also incorrect. A good example is Iceland, which developed a waste to energy plant reducing waste to landfill from 80% to just 30% in 13 years, yet the waste to energy plant consumes just 5% of the waste stream. The development of the plant along with other regulatory measures led to a streamlining and increase in recycling practices and recovery of materials

Sep 19, 2013
12:32 AM

David D……………David, get your facts correct, Sweden imports waste from Northern Norway, the Narvik area….as they DO NOT have a CHP plant, and find it cheaper to truck it over to Sweden for incineration………….its a win win thingy for Sweden………….also Italy did ship waste to Sweden when they were having rubbish problems in one or two Italian cities……………………but it was very expensive for them, yet again, win win for Sweden, a country that has CHP plants in almost every city, town and even village……………..

Sep 19, 2013
12:24 AM

Of course you are partly right in saying that incinerating ALL trash is wasteful……………Canadians produce 1000 kgs of waste per person each year, Swedes produce less that 200 kgs a year, and ALL of this, what we call household trash is incinerated and produces enough energy to heat about 50% of the countries homes and industrial buildings……………and whats more, emissions from the CHP plants is about 40 lbs CO2/ Mwh……compared with the most advanced gas powered plants which have emissions of about 1000 kgs/Mwh, and together with the highest carbon taxes in the world…………………we are still perhaps the leading economic industrialised country in the world………..

Sep 18, 2013
3:36 PM

Actually Bottom Ash its also waste and not garbage. It can be use at the construction industry to build pavements, bricks and more. I participate on a research that we are studying the mechanical proprieties of different combinations of bottom ash from coal power plants and residual lime from chemical industries. Many studies have been done so far and anyone can access them by Google scholar, for example. The process of getting energy from waste its not perfect, but there are still a lot of room for improvement, and yet is way better than landfills. Zero Waste its about philosophy and ideas, it will take years to change peoples minds and behaviors. We have to act now. In 3rd world countries open landfills are still a reality and thousands of people around the globe live by or even on it. I support the burning waste technology, at least is mitigating the garbage issue significantly.

Sep 17, 2013
1:50 PM

“The practice is especially popular in the European Union, where countries including Sweden and Germany now have to import waste to fuel their generators.”

“Turning unsorted and usable trash into a valuable fuel commodity means communities are less likely to choose to reduce, reuse and recycle it.”

Well, then why do they have to import waste if they are less likely to recycle? The fact they have to import waste suggests the opposite.


Sep 17, 2013
7:39 AM

Governments should be passing a bill to reduce excessive packaging that is used for goods that are introduced into the market place. Taking it a step further they should also make it mandatory that packaging is biodegradable. However, we can’t seem to rely on governments to think with a mind to protect our environment. I wonder where they think their grandchildren will live to survive the mess their governing has created?

Sep 16, 2013
11:14 AM

I’m imagining that the bottom waste is simply a higher concentration of cadmium and other toxins after incineration since the rest has burned off. Depositing back to landfill is mute since it already was there. More to the point, the public can buy products with less packaging as well as more environmentally friendly products however, the products, shipping method and packaging is still controlled by the manufacturers and distributors. Also, the methods of goods lifespans are controlled as well. I’ve tried continuously to fix or have fixed various products and find the cost or repair information to be proprietary and hard to obtain or expensive. Imagine if automobiles didn’t rust and could be updated with newer technologies. For example, an ‘82 lincoln with hybrid and a diesel 4 cylinder engine. This is a bit of an extreme example but there would be no energy spent on recycling. no more energy spend manufacturing a newer car. No more paint. No further time and energy for redesign of the outside shape, presentation and advertising. If only eh?

Sep 14, 2013
10:33 PM

This is what I think we’re doing with a lot of our local incinerators in Europe — only the stuff which cannot be recycled or composted goes in. Where we are, we have three bins — organic, recyclable and genuinely unusable. It feels like we’re getting there!

Sep 13, 2013
2:25 PM

Is incinerating ‘waste’ different than producing biogas (biomethane) from decomposing organic waste (compost, manure)?

Sep 13, 2013
11:17 AM

David, this is both an excellent article but also timely as the current owner of the Vancouver Canucks is involved in trying to site a garbage incinerator somewhere within the Metro Vancouver region “Already with a large area within its 132 hectares (330 acres) of industrial land zoned for a potential waste-to-energy facility, the Tsawwassen First Nation remains one of the contending locations. Aquilini Renewable Energy, owned by Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, is part of the privately-held Aquilini Investment Group that’s partnered with the TFN on the proposal” (Delta Optomist Proposed TFN incinerator still a contender sept 11 2013) Quite simply, burning garbage to create energy os not a renewable energy source, it is simply a disposal method. Zero Waste Canada condemns such innitiatives!

Sep 13, 2013
11:07 AM

There is no incineration in Zero Waste so how can the Metro Vancouver “Zero Waste Committee” be supportive of burning garbage??? And once these valuable resources are destroyed, the bottom ash, which is now a problem must be land-filled, meaning landfills are still needed, So what’s the point? Resource destruction is just a bad idea but is a great idea to help make a few very very wealthy.

Sep 13, 2013
2:56 AM

The “Zero Waste” strategy is the future…

Sep 12, 2013
6:29 PM

In fact, what about incorporating this stuff into the system?

Sep 12, 2013
6:27 PM

Thanks for addressing this issue! I was recently thinking i needed some critical exposure surrounding this development.

Sep 12, 2013
5:48 PM

In the 1980’s, a professor of engineering at Royal Military College of Canada, developed an energy from waste technology employing the process of plasma pyrolysis to deal with waste streams which proved to use more energy to reprocess than they could release as available hydrogen after being treated by his process. The pyrolytic carbon liberated by the process was an industrially useful byproduct.

The company formed by Dr Thomas Barton was not commercially successful despite strong advocacy for recycling, reuse and reduction of all waste possible. This was due to a massive knee jerk reaction from influential people who could not comprehend the difference between pyrolysis and combustion.

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