Incinerators in Disguise
Australians have always been wary of waste incineration and communities have been opposed to any proposals that have arisen. Public resistance to incineration is also growing in many other countries. In the UK alone, over 80 groups have been established to oppose plans to build new waste incinerators. On a global scale there are many more individuals and organizations who oppose waste incineration with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives claiming 800 grassroots organizations and individual members world-wide.
This has forced the incinerator industry into a public-relations make-over where the word ‘incinerator’ is rarely mentioned and has been replaced by terms such as ‘gasification, pyrolysis, plasma arc and waste to energy (WtE)’.
These technologies are all waste incinerator technologies according to the European Union and the US Environmental Protection Authority. The configuration of each technology varies but they are all designed around single stage or dual stage burning of waste. They all produce a similar profile of pollutants (although the concentrations may vary) and all have similar negative effects on communities and alternative resource recovery practices such as recycling and composting.
Incinerator proponents have attempted to make a distinction between ‘old’ incinerators and ‘new’ technologies. This is part of promoting the argument that environmentalists and communities are objecting to the old polluting technology which has now been replaced by ‘new clean’ technology. However, all of the ‘new’ technologies are basic incineration variants that have been subject to incremental changes over time and most continue to suffer from a poor environmental track record.
While tighter air quality standards have forced waste incinerators to increase pollution controls (especially for dioxins) they continue to be responsible for discharges of a large range of atmospheric pollutants and dioxin release incidents. The improvements to air emissions have also led to a much higher level of contamination of incinerator residues such as ash which must still be sent to landfill.
Incineration – an outdated industry
The incinerator industry has rebuilt its image around the generation of electricity from burning waste. They claim that this is a renewable and ‘green’ form of energy generation which is climate friendly and can replace landfill emissions of methane.
These claims are critical to the establishment of the incinerator industry in Australia because of the government subsidies and credits available to renewable energy generators.
Because a percentage of the municipal waste they will burn is organic in origin or biogenic they claim this constitutes renewable energy and have been aggressively lobbying state and federal government to accept this logic. However while the organic wastes may come from renewable sources the energy created through the incineration process is comparatively more climate polluting than other energy sources such as oil, gas and coal.