Trash: Does burning beat burying?

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Trash: Does burning beat burying?

Europe burns heaps of garbage, getting lots of electricity and some heat. The United States does not.

tall fence and graffitied cement overpass in foreground, tall smoking chimney in background 

Photos, Detroit: j to the jeremy, Vienna: Wikimedia Commons
Detroit’s incinerator, the largest in the world, was briefly shut down last October. Roll over to see an incinerator in Vienna.

Proponents say incineration shrinks the waste and produces heat and electricity while reducing the need for landfills and the diesel-drinking trucks tasked with taking trash to often-distant burial grounds.

These folks acknowledge that incinerators were rather dirty 25 years ago, but note that current air emissions are below Environmental Protection Agency standards. In a modern garbage incinerator, a complex set of filters removes heavy metals and other pollutants; high-temperature operation reduces the output of ultra-toxic dioxins.

On the other side, opponents say incinerators create global warming gases, still release toxins, divert money and attention from recycling, and tend to excuse extreme extravagance on the grounds that we can always turn our trash into energy.
See the Classroom Activity Page for this story.
Not in my backyard, they say. Not in anybody’s backyard, they add.

What a difference an ocean makes! Tiny Denmark, population 5.5 million, has 27 waste-to-energy incinerators, almost one third as many as in the United States, population 309 million. In 2009, the European union had at least 429 plants in operation.

Many European incinerators are located in cities, where their steam can be used to heat nearby buildings, not just to produce electricity. This so-called co-generation is a great way to extract more power from combustion – if the incinerator can be placed near the demand – in a city, in other words.


Aerial view of cityscape with large multi-leveled facility with tall chimney and side of a sports stadium on left.

Courtesy Covanta
A Covanta incinerator, the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis, feeds steam to Target Field (left), home of the Minnesota Twins, for heating in spring and fall. The incinerator also supplies steam to a downtown district heating system.

Meanwhile, the biggest incinerator news on this side of the pond was the closure last fall of the world’s largest trash-burner, in Detroit. Covanta, which operated the plant and was a minority owner, cited “economic factors” for closing an incinerator that had attracted protests for years. The Detroit incinerator is now running again, under different management, says Brad van Guilder, an incinerator opponent at the Ecology Center, a non-profit environmental organization in Ann Arbor, Mich., but it still requires subsidies to earn a profit, and it’s operating at far below capacity.

Covanta, the leading incinerator operator in the United States, runs 40 of the 87 operating municipal waste incinerators in the United States. It’s expanding an incinerator in Hawaii, and is working on proposals for Ontario and Vancouver, says James Regan, spokesperson for Covanta. Given the widespread skepticism about burning garbage in the United States, he says the company is much more active overseas. The United Kingdom and Ireland, for example, are facing a European Union Landfill Directive to stop burying organic waste by 2020 or start paying 48 Euros per ton for disposal.

Germany diverts the most trash from landfills through burning and recycling, Bulgaria the least 

From original graph by Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants
In Europe, there’s quite a contrast between West and East, and North and South. Europe’s Landfill Directive has sparked a wave of incinerator construction in several nations.

So which is it: Is incineration, as proponents call it, waste-to-energy, or is it a waste of energy, a needless expense, and a source of toxic pollution?

Several dozen young people protesting with sunflower-shaped signs calling for good jobs and clean air

These protesters temporarily won their fight to close Detroit’s garbage incinerator, which released as much carbon dioxide as 100,000 passenger cars. Detroit began trucking trash to landfills, but the incinerator is now back in business.

Dumping on the open range

People have long burned garbage in the back yard, but in the United States, the big push for industrial-scale burning dates to the so-called garbage crisis of the 1980s, when incinerators were promoted as a safety valve for America’s overflowing landfills. “Communities were looking for a solution to manage their waste, and it’s more or less the same story today,” says Regan. “The municipal dumps were closing up, and finding a place to put waste was the main driver.”

A few incinerators were built, at great expense, but the specter of trash-derived smoke, laden with heavy metals and toxic dioxins, frequently added up to a public-relations disaster. Since 1980, when less than 10 percent of municipal solid waste was recycled, recycling had risen by 2009 to almost 34 percent of waste. That eased pressure on landfills, which were receiving about 89 percent of our garbage in 1980, and just 54 percent of in 2009. A rise of regional landfills, taking trash from hundreds of miles away, further helped reduce the incentive to incinerate.

The widespread objection to having a smoking, hulking garbage burner in the neighborhood is often mocked as “not-in-my-backyard” syndrome, but the term “NIMBY” is usually used by people who, by virtue of wealth and political power, are unlikely to enjoy such installations in their own backyards.

In Europe, severe land shortages during the 1970s started a switch toward incineration, says Anders Damgaard, a post-doctoral fellow at North Carolina State University. “I’m from Denmark, and 96 percent of our residential waste is not landfilled. We started incineration in the 1970s, not to generate energy, but because we ran out of space and could not build more landfills.”

The big centers of waste to-energy in Europe, Damgaard says, “are countries with the least space, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland. Over the last 30 years, they have been improving the technology for waste-to-energy and brought down the level of air pollution, which was a major concern. That made it more applicable to countries with more space, where they wanted to find a more sustainable solution than putting waste in the ground,” where it can pollute groundwater and release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Total MSW recycling starts at 5.6 million tons and 6.4 percent  in 1960, goes to 82 million tons and 33.8 percent in 2009 

Graph: U.S. EPA
Waste recycling grew rather steadily in the U.S. between 1960 and 2009, whether measured in tons or percentage.

Toxins and dioxins

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.

Trash goes from storage bunker to incinerator; steam generates electricity; gases get detoxified; ash goes to landfill

Photo: Ecomaine
A garbage burner, like a coal plant, needs sophisticated pollution controls as it converts solid fuel to energy. Although incineration reduces the volume of waste, the ash will always need burial.

Those pollution controls are expensive, and cost is a major hindrance to building new incinerators in the United States, where landfill space is relatively cheap.

In Europe, greens get along rather well with incinerators, says Damgaard, although he does note a switch in opposition from pollution worries to the greenhouse-warming impact of incineration (which we’ll discuss later).

That change, he says, is evidence that pollution controls are working. “I think they don’t use air pollution as the main problem because it’s under control now. In Europe, especially in the countries that burn waste, there is really no movement against waste-to-energy. The green organizations see it as viable, they know the alternative is burning more fossil fuel, which is just as polluting if not more so. If you go back to the 1980s, pollution was a huge issue, but in the last 10 years, incinerators have become so much cleaner.”

Landfill is 54.3 percent , waste-to-energy  is 11.9 percent, recycled and composted is 33.8 percent.

From original graph by U.S. EPA

Competition for recycling

Do incinerators, by establishing an alternative destination for trash, undermine recycling efforts? Yes, says van Guilder, who notes that for financial reasons, incinerator builders often require a “put or pay” contract that obliges a municipality to pay a penalty if it fails to supply a minimum cargo of waste.

When the embattled Detroit incinerator was built, the city agreed to essentially ban curbside recycling, van Guilder says. “Once the materials are set at the curb, they belong to the Detroit Department of Public Works, which is obligated to deliver all refuse to the incinerator. If a private citizen wanted to pay someone to pick up recyclables, they could be fined.”

Instead of building more incinerators, some opponents in the United States advocate a “zero waste” solution — a ramped version of reduce, reuse recycle — that would leave very little waste — but not zero — to be buried in landfills.

“To truly get to zero waste, we have a big gap,” admits van Guilder, “but if that’s the policy goal, that will give you the vision to move further to reduce, reuse, recycle. The next stage is a policy for extended producer responsibility, for take back, like we’re seeing for electronic waste, and we’ve had for lead-acid batteries, and for bottle [return] bills. These are sporadic examples that need to be more comprehensive.”

But is zero waste a real goal, or an inspiring slogan? “A lot of people are talking about a zero-waste society, but that’s a very philosophical standpoint,” counters Damgaard. “We will always have waste; those who think we can recycle 100 percent, that’s utopian.”

Wasting Less in the West

In exploring how to reduce the need for garbage disposal, Americans can look to cities on the “Left Coast.” San Francisco, for example, intends to be “zero waste” by 2020. The city’s mandatory recycling and composting ordinance requires residents and businesses to separate recyclables and compostables (food and yard waste) from trash. In this “co-mingled” system, all recyclables, from paper to metal, are collected in one container, then separated at a recycling facility. The city also requires recycling of construction and demolition debris. And it has banned restaurants from using Styrofoam take-out containers and large grocers and chain pharmacies from supplying plastic bags to customers.


Three trash, labeled garbage, recyclables and compost; a educational poster behind each.

Photo: Frank Farm
Signs at a University of California-San Francisco cafeteria tell diners what belongs in which trash can, heeding the city’s requirement to separate compost and recyclables from garbage.

“Reduce, reuse and recycle are the most important things we need to do,” says Regan of Covanta, the incinerator firm. “We would never be caught saying that is not what you should do. Waste to energy is not a silver bullet. People say we compete with recycling, but on average the communities where we have incinerators recycle more. Marion County, Oregon, has almost a 70 percent recycling rate, and we process the residual waste.”

Instead of competing with recycling, Regan argues that the alternative to incinerators is landfills. “We think we are better than landfills, that’s our competition.” Each year, he adds, Covanta recycles more than 400,000 tons of iron, steel and aluminum that otherwise would be buried in landfills.

Recycling and incineration can compete with each other, says Matt McCullogh, an outside advisor to Covanta who works for Canada’s Pembina Institute, which advocates and consults about sustainable energy. “It’s up to the community to ensure they have a solid recycling system in place, so only what cannot be recycled goes to waste-to-energy, and the result is a win-win where there is enough energy content so the facility can be economic.”
Indeed, the European nations with the highest rates of incineration, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands, recycle 27 percent to 54 percent of their waste.

Is “waste” energy renewable energy?

How might increased incineration affect global warming due to greenhouse gases? Incinerators are often called “waste-to-energy” plants and they are also sometimes considered sources of renewable energy, but the energy equation is extremely complex. Some of the energy in waste organic materials, including paper, is renewable, but other energy comes from plastics that originate in fossil fuel.

Giant ball of orange and red fire inside incinerator

Photo: Herr Olsen
Furnace of the waste-to-energy plant in Solingen, Germany.

Although that energy is not renewable, it is wasted when plastic is buried in a landfill. “If we don’t burn the plastics, we have to create that same energy directly from fossil fuels,” says Damgaard. “As long as the energy system relies on fossil fuel, this just switches between different types of fuel.”

Could incineration excuse ever greater use of plastic? That seems to be the hope of Rusty Wheat, sustainability manager at the French petrochemical giant Total. “We’ll promote anything that increases waste-to-energy,” Wheat told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February. “We can’t recycle a lot of plastic because it’s contaminated, and cleaning it would cost more environmentally than putting it in a landfill.” The most reasonable approach now, Wheat said, “is to take bulk municipal solid waste straight to the incinerator.”

A recent bill called Waxman-Markey would give renewable energy status and tax breaks for the organic stuff that’s burned in waste-to-energy plants, Wheat said. “That excluded our plastics, and we weren’t too happy about that, and we have been lobbying to get plastics back into Waxman-Markey. Plastic is what provides all the BTU [heat] content, so waste-to-energy plants should want to burn it. We need the renewable energy status for the tax breaks.”

Waste-to-energy, or energy-to-waste?

Turn the argument on its head, and you get a different result. If your goal is to save energy, the best tactic is to reuse or recycle plastic, not burn it, says van Guilder. (To which skeptics at Why Files must observe that many plastic cannot reasonably be reused or recycled, leaving a real-world choice of burning or burying.)

Incinerators release energy through combustion, and landfills create it when bacteria produce methane. This natural gas is a great fuel, but methane is also 21 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping greenhouse gases. Although many landfills have labyrinthine pipes to collect methane, 60 to 85 percent of the gas escapes into the air, and a recent study1 found that counting this escape, landfills produce 1.6 to 5.7 times more greenhouse-warming as waste-to-energy to make the same amount of electricity.


Garbage truck dumping trash into huge landfill trash piles, seagulls fly in background.

Photo: ARH346
Are waste-to-energy facilities a more constructive solution to America’s garbage habit?

The bottom line is the bottom line

Thousands of words ago, we promised to explain why Europe is so happy with its incinerators, and the United States is so fearful of them. But here’s the deal: Europe might not even have incinerators if it had enough room to build giant sacrifice zones — landfills. “Unlike Europe, many parts of the United States are not space-constrained,” says DeCarolis. “If it were, there would be a more serious move here toward waste-to-energy.”

To be efficient, incinerators must be located near the people who generate the waste, DeCarolis says. “You don’t want to put incinerators in the middle of nowhere, because the cost of bringing all the waste is too high [and there will be no market for the steam generated]. But when you are close to a population, you run into NIMBYism. People are afraid to have these large plants near them.”

Garbage is not going away, DeCarolis adds. “If we don’t incinerate, we’ve got to do something else. We can recycle and reuse, but at some point, we’re going to end up with residual waste that will need to be landfilled.”

And landfills cause their own environmental threats – methane, groundwater pollution, and removing land from productive use, DeCarolis adds. If we don’t incinerate, he adds, “we will not get away from having an environmental impact.”

– David Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Denmark waste-to-energy.
  2. Europe leads the way.
  3. Energy Recovery Council.
  4. Incinerator as eye candy.
  5. Burn or bury?
  6. EPA: U.S. waste management.
  7. Expansion of “renewable energy” meaning.
  8. WTE technology report.
  9. Heating Target Field.
  10. Closing Detroit’s incinerator.
  11. Detroit: incinerator vs. recycling.
  12. Waste-to-energy directory.
  13. 1 Is It Better To Burn or Bury Waste for Clean Electricity Generation? P. Ozge Kaplan et al, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2009, 43, 1711-1717.