There is no time to waste: the climate impact of incineration and waste-to-energy
This may not be surprising, but humans produce more waste than the earth can handle. For most people, rubbish is thrown into ordinary trash cans or separate collection bins and will never be seen or thought of again. But waste will not go away, it must go somewhere.
In 2018, on average, only 47% of municipal waste in the 28 EU countries was recycled, which means that 53% of the waste was sent to landfills (more on this in the next blog) or incinerated. Incineration of garbage is becoming more and more common in Europe-it is equivalent to "abolition of culture" garbage, it avoids a large amount of garbage on the surface of the earth. The problem is that we should worry about more than just the impact on the surface of the earth.
When calculating the emissions from the burning of all municipal waste, one ton of waste will release nearly 1.1 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere (1), causing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change to get out of control. Incineration seems to eliminate the visible waste problem in the short term, but in the long term, it will cause an invisible crisis.
Incinerators produce a variety of pollutants: nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and carbon dioxide (in addition to the toxic residues they release). According to recent data, the European Union and the United Kingdom burned nearly 70 million tons of municipal waste in 2017, which is equivalent to the release of approximately 77 million tons of carbon dioxide. From some perspectives, the total CO2 emissions of France in 2017 were 300,000,000 tons. Recently, in 2019, the global production and incineration of plastic alone produced more than 850 million tons of greenhouse gases. Therefore, these emissions are definitely not a trivial source of carbon dioxide from Europe.
It is worth noting that the air pollution caused by waste incineration has been shown to have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities including people of color, further exacerbating injustices in our society, and continuing to have climate impacts on the most vulnerable groups. .
It's not just carbon emissions that cause incineration problems. In fact, this process requires carbon to run. Burning waste requires energy, which firstly makes it a carbon-intensive process.
Facilities used to burn waste often cannot contain all the polluting gases used in the combustion process, which will add additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, as well as other toxic pollutants released by combustion.
Industry new toys
The new waste industry "solution" launched throughout Europe is called waste-to-energy conversion, which is essentially incineration plus potential energy creation for various processes. This new approach is being promoted as a clean alternative to fossil fuels and landfills. However, in 2017, waste incineration power plants in the 28 EU countries emitted more than 40 million tons of fossil carbon dioxide in 2017.
The conversion of waste into energy is like incineration requires carbon raw materials to operate, making it dependent on fossil fuels and producing them. Obviously, waste-to-energy is not a panacea for the industry after all.
No time to waste
There is evidence that more than half of what is currently being incinerated can be recycled or composted, which begs the question: Why are we still incinerating garbage?
We urgently need to phase out the practice of burning waste throughout Europe, coordinate climate policies, and include the practice of turning waste into energy into the report.
Although of course we must reduce waste generation, encourage zero waste and reusable practices, and increase the recycling rate of separate collection, but we must also transform the waste system into material recycling and waste biological treatment, so that there is no need for reusable alternatives. Recycle as much as possible if it exists. t is also available.
It is irresponsible for the environment to continue to burn waste and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we have the opportunity to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees, we need to reduce all sources of greenhouse gases. Learn more about why landfills are not a viable option in our next blog.
Read more about our work on climate. Energy and air pollution are here.
Explore this topic in depth through our policy brief on the impact of waste-to-energy on the climate.
Next → Waste management and methane
(1) The incineration of municipal waste produces two types of carbon. Biochar from burning organic waste and fossil carbon from burning remaining waste. Normally this kind of biochar is not included in incineration emissions because it is assumed that this part of the carbon will be reabsorbed by living organisms. However, in such large-scale deforestation, this is often not the case. Therefore, this figure refers to two sources of carbon dioxide.
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