Landfill Alternative: Incineration

By Isobel Whitcomb ‘17
Environmental Columnist

Landfill. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Landfill. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Every year in the United States, 164 million tons of trash get dumped into landfills. These sprawling cities of garbage harm biodiversity by poisoning wildlife and taking up land. They are also incredible eyesores. However, it’s a little-known fact that landfills also inflict damage on the earth by releasing huge quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas which can trap 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide. But without landfills, where would all the garbage go? While reducing, reusing and recycling is always the safest solution to the garbage problem, it shouldn’t be the only one. The United States especially still lags too much in reducing waste and recycling to justify forgoing other ways to reduce our dependence on landfills. There is another solution: burn the trash.

Compared to filling landfills, trash incineration may seem no better as an option for waste disposal. Afterall, burning anything creates CO2, the most abundant greenhouse gas, as well as ash. Plus, when synthetic materials are burned, they also release carcinogens such as dioxins. However, the carbon dioxide released by the incinerators actually has a less adverse effect on the climate than the massive amounts of methane released by landfills. Plus, modern incinerators contain filters that filter out the majority of carcinogens contained in trash so that the smokestacks of incinerators actually release fewer dioxins and other carcinogens than typical fireplaces. The greatest benefit of trash incinerators, however, is their ability to harvest the energy produced by burning waste, reducing dependence on fossil fuels. For years, European countries have relied on this method of reducing landfill size while simultaneously heating homes and powering cities. The machines are relatively small and very discrete, disguised as pretty buildings to blend in with their surroundings. However, it does not appear that the United States will ever invest in building “waste to energy” plants. Why aren’t we following in Europe’s footsteps?

First, in a country as large and incohesive as the United States, it is difficult to find a place to build an incinerator. As landfills overflow and become dangerous in places such as New York, these large cities have made efforts to make such a change. However, many communities seem wary of having an incinerator built next door. In New York, for example, when the idea was proposed, a community of Hasidic Jews protested, saying that the incinerator would remind them of the Holocaust. Second, as mentioned before, trash incinerators are not perfect solutions. They facilitate our dependence on energy and encourage consumption of waste-producing goods. In Europe, there is a correlation between trash consumption and use of incinerators. For instance, Denmark, the country with the greatest number of trash incinerators in Europe, also is the greatest producer of waste per capita on the continent.

The trash incinerator may not be the perfect solution to pollution. However, if the United States somehow was able to place half as much trash in landfills and burn the other half, that would decrease our enormous production of greenhouse gases, a step in the right direction.