The incredible amount of waste modern civilization produces needs to go somewhere. But where?
In some parts of the world, garbage is incinerated, especially in Europe. In other parts, it goes to landfills. Both methods attract criticism.
Why Files has an in-depth article on the ‘bury it or burn it?’ debate.
Supporters of incineration say it decreases waste and produces heat and electricity at the same time. Fewer landfills are needed as well as fewer trucks powered with diesel traveling to take trash to remote locations.
Detractors say incinerators create global warming gases because they release toxins and divert attention from recycling, possibly fostering a culture of excess since trash can then become a source of energy.
Americans don’t like incinerators, the article says, because no one wants an incinerator in their backyard. Besides, the country does have space, unlike Europe where limited space is a pressing issue. In Denmark, 54 per cent of residential waste is incinerated, a process that gained momentum in the 1970s when the country ran out of space for more landfills. Other European countries that are big on waste-to-energy are Austria and Switzerland, the latter surely a place where recycling has been a feature of everyday life since the 1980s.
It seems like the criticism that incinerators are harmful to the air is not so true:
“Regulators in the United States and Europe are both reporting big drops in air pollution from burning garbage, says Joseph DeCarolis, an assistant professor of water resources and environmental engineering at North Carolina State University. ‘According to EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] data on waste-to-energy facilities in the U.S., depending on the pollutant, the levels are significantly below their standard.’ Most levels, he says, are less than half the EPA limit.”
Apparently incinerators have become cleaner with better technologies …
Of course, if we could become zero-waste societies, then neither alternative would be necessary – but is really possible to reduce, recycle and re-use everything?
It’s a complex issue, like every discussion related to energy. The conclusion is that space availability plays an important role in a society’s choice of waste disposal. Incinerators need to be near the people who generate the waste because the cost of transporting all the waste is too high. But then a lot of people don’t want them in their backyard.
Landfills also pollute, and a lot. They generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas; they pollute groundwater and occupy land that could be used productively. The challenge is to decide which one is the lesser of two evils.
Article by Antonio Pasolini, a Brazilian writer and video art curator based in London, UK. He holds a BA in journalism and an MA in film and television.