A poor solution for the twenty first century
Paul Connett's speech on incineration and waste reduction
A presentation by Dr. Paul Connett Professor of Chemistry
St. Lawrence University
At the 4th Annual International Management Conference
Nov. 24 & 25, 1998
About the author
Dr. Paul Connett is a full and tenured professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where he has taught for 15 years. He obtained his undergraduate degree in natural sciences from
He has attended numerous international symposia on dioxin, and with his colleague Tom Webster has presented six papers at these symposia which have been subsequently published in Chemosphere. He has given over 1500 public presentations on these issues in 48 states in the
To aid your browsing of this important and extensive speech, CANK has created an Index to all headings and has also highlighted some (but not all) key phrases in red
Far from it being the universally proven technology claimed by its promoters, the incineration of municipal trash with energy recovery has been an experiment which after 20 years has left the citizens of industrialised countries with a legacy of unacceptably high levels of dioxins and related compounds in their food, their tissues, their babies and in wild life.
The author argues that as the industry has struggled to make incineration safe, they have, like the nuclear power industry before them, priced themselves out of the market. Moreover, as they have sought air pollution control devices to capture the extremely toxic by-products of combustion, the resulting residues have become more problematic and costly to handle, dispose and contain. There are still remaining concerns about the safety of incinerators, especially as they are built in developing economies, which do not have the resources to build, operate or monitor them properly.
However, even if these concerns are overcome, as we move into the twenty first century, the role of trash incineration, with or without energy recovery, will become less and less viable, both economically and environmentally.
Our future task will be dominated by a need to find sustainable ways of living on the planet. Those who have been preoccupied with making incineration safe have lavished their engineering ingenuity on the wrong question. Society's task is not to perfect the destruction of our waste, but to find ways to avoid making it. The argument that burning waste can be used to recover energy makes for good sales promotion, but the reality is that if saving energy is the goal, then more energy can be saved by society as a whole by reusing and recycling objects and materials than can be recovered by burning them. Municipal waste is a low-tech problem. It is made by mixing. It is unmade by separation.
Both problem and solution are at our fingertips, not on the drawing boards of Swiss or Swedish engineers. In the longer term, after the citizen has played his or her part by supporting source separation, reuse, recycling, composting and toxic removal, industry has to pay more attention to the way objects and materials are made and used. How an object is going to be reused or recycled has to be built into the initial design decisions
To recognise that it is overconsumption that is giving us both global warming and a waste disposal crisis, is to recognise that trash is the most concrete connection each individual has to the global crisis. More effort has to be put into resisting the largely post-war American philosophy that "the more one consumes the happier one becomes'", before it makes the planet uninhabitable. A way has to be found to tame the voracious appetites of the multinational corporations which plunder the world for short-term profit. This cannot be done until we as individuals find a way to resist the skilful advertising that traps us within a whole web of false needs. The antidote to overconsumption is community building. The fierce local arguments that ensue over the siting of both landfills and incinerators can be used to force these issues onto the political agenda.
Incineration might make sense if we had another planet to go to, but without that sci-fi escape, it must be resisted in favour of more down-to-earth solutions that we can live with, both within our local communities and on the planet as a whole. Both incineration and raw waste landfilling attempt to bury the evidence of an unacceptable throwaway lifestyle. Every incinerator built delays this fundamental discussion by at least 20 years.
As I deliver these comments I am very conscious of the fact that many of the people sitting in this audience earn their living from the operation of incinerators. They will probably find many of my views antithetical to their own. I applaud the organisers of this conference for having the courage to allow me to speak. Too often, decision-makers do not discover the downside to incineration until the wrath of the public is unleashed.
To paraphrase the words of Shakespeare's character Mark Anthony, I come here not to praise the idea of the incineration of municipal waste with energy recovery, but to bury it.
However, whether you agree with my position or not, I hope you agree with Joseph Joubert, who said, " 'Tis better to debate a question without settling it, than to settle a question without debating it". In my view, incineration of municipal waste looks back to the nineteenth century, not forward to the twenty first. Indeed, the first waste-to-energy plant was operating in
I will argue that even if the finest engineers were able to make incineration safe - i.e. captured all of the toxic emissions and found a safe method of handling and storing the ash - from an ethical point of view, they would not have made the incineration of trash acceptable. It simply doesn't make ethical sense to spend so much time, money and effort destroying materials we should be sharing with the future. Thus, those who have set themselves the Herculean task of perfecting the art and science of incineration, have poured a massive amount of attention into the wrong end of the problem and produced a sophisticated set of answers to the wrong question. As we prepare to enter the twenty first century, society's task is not find a new place or a new machine in which to put the trash, but to find ways of not making waste in the first place.
When one first hears about trash incineration it seems like a good idea. I certainly thought so. It promised to rid our
It is only when one spends time looking below the surface appeal of these facilities that one realises the huge backward step they represent, environmentally, socially, economically and from the point of view of moving towards a sustainable society.
I will discuss the arguments against building more trash incinerators under seven headings.
1. Toxic emissions
1.1 Hydrogen chloride is formed.
1.2 Nitric oxide is generated.
1.3 Toxic metals are released.
1.3.1 Mercury, a highly problematic pollutant, is difficult to control.
1.4 Dioxins, Furans and other by-products of combustion are formed.
1.4.1 Post combustion formation of dioxin.
1.4.2 The fly ash dioxin problem.
1.4.3 No continuous monitoring of dioxins possible.
1.4.4 Rising concern about current dioxin levels.
1.4.5 Dioxin emissions easily captured in food chains.
1.4.7 Advances in one country do not always translate to success in others.
1.5 End-of-the-pipe control
1.6 Modifications to counteract one pollutant can lead to increases in others.
2. Ash disposal.
2.1 Fly ash hazard often obscured.
2.2 Ash represents a Catch-22 for the incineration industry.
3. Economic costs.
3.1. Incinerators are formidably expensive.
3.2. Very few jobs are created for this massive economic investment.
3.3 Most of the money invested in the incinerator leaves the community.
3.4 Loss of capital is acute in developing economies.
3.5 Taxpayers usually find out true costs when it is too late.
3.5.1 Flow control outlawed in the US.
4. The waste of energy involved.
4.1. Modern incinerators do produce saleable energy.
4.2 Reality versus Public relations.
4.2.1 Consider these simple points:
4.3 Recycling saves more energy than incineration yields.
4.4 A larger vision is needed.
5. Public opposition.
5.1. In the US incineration is the most unpopular technology since nuclear power.
5.2 US development at a standstill.
5.3 Opposition in other countries.
5.4 The dangers of ignoring public opinion.
5.5 Look at more than one option.
5.6 Even a true believer should not lead with incineration.
5.7 The non-burn alternatives are more popular.
6. A few words on the alternatives.
6.2 The importance of composting.
6.3 Integrated waste management.
6.4 Five principles.
7.1 Cheap fossil fuels conceal our non-sustainability.
7.2 Incineration is a wasted opportunity.
7.3 Forces behind overconsumption.
7.4 Fighting the dominant paradigm.
7.5 Community building.