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Facts about Incineration and Energy-from-Waste

Burning or destroying resources instead of recycling, reusing or composting them wastes energy, releases harmful greenhouse gas emissions and other toxins into our air and water. Here are the facts about ‘energy’ from waste.

1. Incineration does not create renewable, clean, or green energy and contributes to climate change.

Incineration in all its forms, ‘energy-from-waste’, 'recovery' of energy, gasification, pyrolosis, plasmification or any other ‘thermal treatment’, create greenhouse gasses and is an extremely inefficient source of energy (i.e. it requires more energy than it produces).

  • Incineration with energy recovery only generates a small amount of energy. Creating energy from waste relies on burning mixed garbage and materials with a high energy value: dried organics and plastics. These are materials we can, and should, be composting or recycling. The energy we can conserve by recycling something is far greater than the energy we can get from burning it.
  • Energy from waste is dirty and carbon intensive energy, it produces 17x more carbon per kilowatt hour than the average energy in Ontario’s electricity grid, and is more carbon intensive than fossil gas. [1]

2. Incineration in all its forms creates incredibly toxic air and ash pollution. 

This includes pollutants such as particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

  • The burning of plastics and other combustible materials creates very toxic dioxins and furans. These are extremely toxic substances that accumulate in the soil and in our bodies. Dioxins are extremely harmful even at very small levels.
  • Even the most sophisticated filtration systems cannot remove all of these toxic substances and we can’t safely predict the toxins released because every load of garbage is different. Emissions levels reported for existing incinerators are based on ideal computer modelling. Real world emissions testing is very limited and in many cases, happens only a few times per year.
    • For example one of the newest incinerators in North America, at the Durham York Energy Centre, releases dioxins and at points has released dioxins at levels nearly 14 times the allowable limit.
    • A recent study near three European incinerators found toxic dioxins and other accumulating ‘forever chemicals’ in vegetation and agricultural goods, including eggs. [2]
  • The residual ash produced from the ‘energy-from-waste’ process is more toxic than the garbage that was initially burned and still needs to be transferred to and deposited in a landfill, often a hazardous waste landfill. 

3. Incineration adds to environmental injustice in our communities.

The communities surrounding incinerators and 'energy-from-waste' facilities face a greater burden of local air pollution, which can harm the health of nearby residents. Historically, these facilities and their toxic burdens are more often placed next to racialized and/or lower income communities.    

For example, the Emerald energy-from-waste mass-burn incinerator is located in Peel Region, in an area already burdened with significant air pollution related to highway traffic and industrial pollution [3], including pollution from a gas-fired power plant. The residents in the area are more likely to be racialized, experiencing precarious employment and have lower incomes than the Ontario average. [4]

To learn more about this incinerator click here.

4. Incineration is the most expensive and inefficient way to deal with waste.

The majority of what is in Toronto’s and other city’s ‘garbage’ isn’t garbage, and should be recycled, composted, or reused to conserve more energy. It is undisputed that diverting waste by increasing efforts to reduce, recycle, and compost resources conserves more energy and prevents more greenhouse gas emissions than any form of disposal, even with energy recovery.

  • Once you build or expand an incinerator, you have to feed it. So even if local residents reduce the amount of waste they generate, they will still be stuck dealing with the fallout of burning waste coming from elsewhere. Signing a contract with a private incinerator operator ties the city into a commitment to keep generating waste in order to generate energy. Contracts can include penalties if waste levels go down, meaning municipalities can be charged if they don’t make enough garbage.
  • Audits of municipal garbage in Toronto, and other Ontario cities, show that on average, approximately 20% of a garbage bag is recyclable materials, including single use packaging and plastics, that should be collected in the Blue Bin, and approximately 30% is food and organic waste that should be composted to recycle nutrients in the green bin. Plastic and organic waste are the most desirable materials in the ‘energy-from-waste’ process, creating incentives NOT to recycle or compost.
  • Funding has a much greater impact if it is spent on investing in new recycling technology, more composters, better education for high rise buildings or better litter clean up.
  • Incinerators are not an alternative to landfills, but an expensive and polluting 'pre-treatment' option for landfills.

Resources and further reading:

Facts about Waste to Energy Incinerators - Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 2018; https://www.no-burn.org/wp-content/uploads/GAIA-Facts-about-WTE-incinerators-Jan2018-1.pdf 

1] EU statistics show EfW releases an average of 580 g CO2e per kWh, natural gas releases 340g CO2e/kWh (Zero Waste Europe_Policy-briefing_The-impact-of-Waste-to-Energy-incineration-on-Climate, 2019); Ontario’s grid released an average of 34g CO2e/kWh (Online Canada Energy Regulator - Provincial and Territorial Energy Market Profiles)

2] Zero Waste Europe, 2022 "The True Toxic Toll: Biomonitoring of incineration emissions"

3] Environmental Defence, Clearing The Air

4] https://www.peelregion.ca/planning-maps/CensusBulletins/2016-immigration-ethnic-diversity.pdf


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