Is Burning Trash Bad?

The growing popularity of modern waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities in Europe and Asia has many in America asking: is burning trash bad?

We’re not big burners here in the U.S., but we’ve been known to light up some litter from time to time. The majority of our waste is buried in landfills, while 31 percent is recycled, but there are currently 90 waste-to-energy facilities operating in the country that torch 14 percent of our trash and convert the heat into electricity.

John Norton, engineering consultant and owner of Norton Engineering LLC, ran a now-defunct WTE plant in Dayton, Ohio for over a decade, and he is familiar with the internal goings-on of waste-to-energy and the misconceptions that often surround the facilities.

“Sometimes people would ask me if the plant was running,” Norton remembers. “When I asked them why, they said ‘because there’s no smoke!’”

“If you see smoke, you can bet that those operating the plant are running around like rats trying to fix something,” he says. “If there is visible smoke of any sort, we have a big problem. The EPA monitors all of the stack emissions all of the time. There’s just no cheating possible.”

Engineers like Norton advocate the cleanliness and safety of WTE facilities and are puzzled why an energy source as renewable as trash has not been explored further here in the states, but many environmental activists are pleased with American skepticism about waste-to-energy.

“There are incinerators in Japan and Europe that are newer than the ones in the U.S. because communities are so successful in questioning the approach of burning all of those resources,” says Monica Wilson, director of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

In this hot-button debate, activists like Wilson remain unconvinced that waste-to-energy facilities are free of the hazardous fly ash, human health concerns and environmental impact of their predecessors.

So, how do these plants work, and are they really safe? Could garbage really be the renewable energy solution of the future, or is big-business pulling the wool over our eyes with a fancy new name and a “greener” business model?

The experts weigh in

The EPA points out that “combusting municipal solid waste has a negative public perception in some communities,” and while many are quick to point out the draw-backs of waste-to-energy disposal, there are plenty of voices speaking out on both sides of the issue.

“We all picture a burning 55 gallon barrel in somebody’s back yard, but that’s not what we’re talking about,” says Norton. “We’re talking about very clean combustion under very controlled conditions.”

But emissions are not the only concern for environmental activists like Monica Wilson. Financial burdens and the possible impediment to recycling expansion are also big problems.

“There are so many economic reasons for local governments to look into expanding their recycling programs,” says Wilson. “Recycling programs create local jobs and feed materials back into local, regional and national industry […] That’s a really important thing to be thinking about instead of spending millions and potentially up to a billion dollars on a new facility.”

“It is important to talk about zero-waste in local government and to adopt zero-waste as a goal,” Wilson says. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to be at zero-waste tomorrow, but the only way to reach that goal is to set it.”

“There is a lot that communities can do in the short-term that will have a huge impact,” she adds. “I think we can achieve a lot and a lot faster than the waste industry would say, because their profits come from wasting as much as possible.”

Others argue that with waste constantly streaming in, WTE facilities should be explored as a cleaner alternative to landfills.

“If I had a primary goal, I would not call it zero-waste,” says Norton. “I’d call it zero-landfill.”

The environmental bottom-line

The strict standards of the Clean Air Act significantly reduce the environmental impact of waste-to-energy facilities by controlling the emissions of hazardous organics including dioxins and furans, hazardous metals and acid gases.

A variety of processes are put in place to ensure the clean operation of a WTE plant, including “dry scrubbers,” which use the old gardener’s trick of spraying lime to neutralize acids and electrostatic precipitators, a fancy term for electrically charged plates that capture small particles and fly ash in the same way your TV screen attracts dust.

Federal standards are also imposed on landfills, which must be designed “to protect the environment from contaminants which may be present in the solid waste stream,” says a spokesperson for the EPA.

To comply with these standards, landfills must be methodically constructed to avoid groundwater and environmental contamination. Although both WTE plants and landfills are subject to stringent EPA standards, neither are free of potential environmental and public health problems.

“Emissions of hazardous air pollutants from waste-to-energy combustors and fossil fuel boilers can be controlled to trace levels,” explains the EPA. “However, environmentalists express concerns about these residual emissions.”

Activists such as Monica Wilson point out that residual emission from both landfills and WTE facilities pose a potential threat to public health and may still contain gases harmful to the environment.

“Landfills generate methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas,” says Wilson. “When you throw waste into an incinerator, no matter how clean it claims to be, greenhouse gases are still produced and so are other potentially harmful emissions.”

The concerns of environmental activists like Wilson are warranted. Both landfills and WTE facilities do emit greenhouse gases.

However, when you compare the two, there is a difference.

According to a report by P. Ozge Kaplan, Joseph DeCarolis and Susan Thornloe, “Burning one ton of waste in a waste-to-energy unit saves between 0.5 and one ton of greenhouse gas emissions compared to landfilling the same amount of waste.”

How recycling fits into the equation

When a WTE facility is constructed contracts are formed between the company operating the facility and the municipality, which mandate the flow of trash into the facility.

From a business standpoint, this means that the operating company and the municipality are shelling out millions to construct the plant. So, they want to make sure enough electricity will be produced to make it worth their while.

The EPA admits that “WTE facilities may be an impediment to further waste reduction, reuse and recycling given that the economic viability of the WTE facility is based on a given supply of wastes.”

For this reason, many environmental activists like Wilson express concern that WTE plants may prove to be a disincentive to recycling, composting and reuse.

“If a community has a facility that must receive a certain amount of tons per day, they can’t build a recycling program that’s bigger than that,” says Wilson. “Often times the amount of waste that is required to go into the incinerator cancels out a community’s recycling goals. It’s simply not possible to recycle what the community wants to recycle and still feed the incinerator enough waste per day.”

But according to Norton, most waste-to-energy plants don’t need your recyclables to meet their bottom-line.

“When you take all bottles, cans and paper out of a load of waste and study what’s left, the combustion characteristics haven’t changed at all,” Norton says. “Recycling programs are no threat to a waste-to-energy plant. When one of these plants is proposed you often find that the plant itself becomes the agency that encourages recycling.”

A 2009 study conducted by Eileen Brettler Berenyi examined the recycling rates of more than 500 communities with waste-to-energy facilities and seems to prove Norton’s theory. The findings of this study were that communities with waste-to-energy facilities had a higher recycling rate than the national average.

Recycling also takes place within the plants themselves. After residual ash cools, magnets and other devices remove metal scrap. These scraps of metal, usually iron and steel, can be as small as paper clips and staples, but add up to thousands of tons over time.

Why burn trash in the first place?

The average American tosses 1,600 pounds of trash per year, which is enough to take up two cubic yards of landfill space.

At that rate, our purple mountain majesties could turn into an Appalachian Trail of trash. So, it’s no wonder that facilities that can decrease the volume of waste and provide renewable energy are so attractive to the U.S. government.

After being burned in an incinerator, residual ash is only about 15 percent of the original load of waste. Translation: after incineration your 1,600 pounds of trash becomes 240 pounds of ash, which is much more manageable for waste management workers.

Some incineration facilities, called solid waste incinerators, only exist to serve this purpose. They don’t produce electricity. They only burn your trash to make it smaller, easier to dispose of and less space-consuming in landfills.

On the other hand, waste-to-energy facilities shrink trash and use the heat to produce steam and electricity. These facilities have the added benefit of producing energy from material that would otherwise be landfilled.

U.S. WTE plants dispose of the waste of 40 million people and generate enough electricity for nearly 3 million households.

What about that ash?

The amount of residual ash varies depending on the waste being used. It usually represents between 15 and 20 percent of the original load of waste, which sounds great. Less landfills the size of Mount Everest, right?

Right, but there’s a catch. Disposing of ash can be problematic, and the issue of residual fly ash is huge with environmental activists.

Ash can contain high concentrations of various metals once present in the original waste. For example, printer inks and textile dyes can release iron and cadmium into the residual ash.

Sorting trash before incineration significantly reduces this problem. The major culprits of metal residue are batteries and paints. Removing these materials before loading the boilers reduces metal concentration in the ash.

Don’t worry, the EPA isn’t simply taking a plant-owner’s word for it. They test the ash from WTE plants to make sure it is safe. Tests are generally looking for chemicals and metals that may contaminate groundwater if placed in a landfill, and once ash is pronounced safe, it is landfilled or used for a number of applications.

About one-third of all the ash produced by WTE facilities is reused in landfills as a daily or final cover-layer or to build roads and make cement.

The final verdict

According to the EPA, “The decision to build a waste-to-energy facility depends on many factors, including geography and population density, the willingness of citizens to accept the technology, the willingness of investors to support it, and on state and local officials who determine how solid waste is handled in a particular area of the country.”

While environmental activists and the waste management industry disagree about whether the U.S. should burn or bury its trash, all agree that recycling is still the No. 1 disposal option.

The EPA promotes a waste reduction hierarchy that encourages reducing waste at its source, then recycling. Recycling is preferable to waste-to-energy and landfilling for materials.

The waste-to-energy debate will likely rage on, America, but at least we’re all on the same page in our knowledge that the chasing arrows are still our best disposal bet.

Feature image courtesy of

Recent Posts
Mary Mazzoni


  1. Thanks for an interesting article. seems that if all best mgmnt practices are followed, WTE plants can be a viable way to reduce waste and produce electric.

    Burn barrels stink and I wish people would cut it out and use recycling and garbage service instead of being so cheap and mindlessly polluting.

  2. Your article tackles a complex issue in a clear, understandable and balanced manner. I really appreciate that. Articles like this lead to an informed citizenry that can make decisions based upon fact not spin. Thank you!

  3. Well written article. By the way, the German Green Party has endorsed Waste to Energy as a preferred alternative to landfilling, stating that 100% recycling will not be obtainable any time soon. Having personal experience with landfill operations, it’s not hard for me to see that WTE facilities would offer a much better chance at capturing contaminants and environmental poisons than simply burying.

  4. How refreshing to see a fair handed; both sides of the argument approach to WTE. I have personnaly worked at a large WTE for 17 years, and had to face numerous challenges in the course of burning about 1400 tons/day of “refuse derived fuel”. The facts are becoming very obvious to those in the solid waste business; landfills are filling up (right now New York City is exporting all of their waste), recycling is not keeping up, and public opinion is holding back WTE just like it did with Nuclear Power.

  5. Excellent article – maybe the best I’ve ever seen on Earth911.

    Of course Zero Waste is a laudable goal and ideal. But I wonder – even in that perfect Zero Waste world, people will still need power. Even the greenest experts say that renewable energy can’t do it all. So on the balance, are the GHG emissions from W2E significantly higher than other power generation models? I suspect not.

    Recycling rocks, but there have to be viable markets that ensure that recovered material actually gets used (and the resulting products actually get purchased).

    There’s also the cynic inside me that says no matter how much we want ZW, the vast majority will never accept it. It’s politically too hot and too huge for most municipalities. Joe Sixpack gets upset at ANY change to the routine and throws monkeywrenches…

    I think there’s a sensible balance between W2E and robust recycling that results in the most positive change with the least possible upheaval (and thus fastest turn time). Just my 2 cents.

  6. Regardless of how one feels about waste-to-energy plants, we should all be able to agree that the buring of household trash in teh back yard is treeible for our environment and should be banned everywhere.

  7. I wondered a bit about the statistics cited, since there seems to have been such a lot of progress in WTE. Only a few years ago, I read that about 1/3 of the original weight of trash was in the solid residue, and that it had to be specially landfilled as hazwaste. Is there really continuous monitoring by the regulators? It’s great if new plants manage to keep it to 15%, but does that include fly ash? I had the impression that the part of the residue that was useful for cement was just the fly ash; the article seems to say that the other, major part can be so used, too, but it would seem to depend a good deal on the nature of the input. For example, ordinary (AA, A, B, C, D) batteries, which we are unable to recycle: once the melted metal is removed (and presumably recycled), are their solid remains all benign? People are also advised to throw smoke detectors into the trash for combustion, even though many contain radionuclides like americium. I find it hard to believe that if people do a good job of recycling and composting, the resulting waste stream is as benignly and economically combustible as reported here.

  8. Excellent article, very well written. I like that you presented both sides of the issue in what appears to be an honest and fair manner. I’ll be looking further into this issue for myself so I can developan informed opinion before having my emails and letters ignored by the powers that be in my overly conservative state of Utah ;) But I have to try anyway…

  9. I hope articles providing information this issue will continue in order to educate more people on the benefits of waste to energy. Minnesota has 9 waste to energy facilities where municipal solid waste or refuse derived fuel is combusted and energy produced. Some facilities serve steam processing needs of private industry in industrial parks; others serve the heating and cooling needs of downtowns and others generate renewable electricity for the grid. These facilities have operated safely for over 20 years significantly reducing landfilling. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a Program Mangement Decision Memo in June 2010, which can be found on the Agency’s website, that reaffirms the state’s waste hierarchy properly placing waste to energy facilities above landfills as a preference for dealing with waste. Further, the MPCA found “no evidence that the state’s WTE system and its recycling system are working at cross purposes”. In fact, Minnesota counties participating in waste to energy projects have some of the highest recycling rates in the State. Ash also does not create concern as facilities have test data of their ash leachate from the last two decades which consistently meet drinking water standards.

  10. Agreed – one of the best articles I’ve seen on Earth911. This is a touchy subject for a lot of people and it’s time to have thoughtful conversations about it.

  11. We’re not big burners here in the U.S., dunno where you get your info
    “We all picture a burning 55 gallon barrel in somebody’s back yard, but that’s not what we’re talking about,”
    in the lower tip of Ohio in lawerence county you find those all over the place ,,its a common thing to find personal landfills here , road side dumps are pretty bad too
    my parents burn stuff all the time ,,like card board ,papers of bank account info and so on ..up untill 12 13 years ago we had our own landfill we would dump the items that wouldn’t burn to ash and we started using a local pick up company
    people still burn trash here is all to common along with tires
    its really sad
    up untill the last couple of weeks I was the only person a saw using canvas bags or either bags for that matter

  12. Duh Me!
    I agree with all these complimentary comments about the article: it was very balanced and informative and I was very impressed until I got to the last line….
    …”chasing arrows”? ……..OH! YOU MEAN THE RECYCLING SYMBOL! I guess I’m out of the loop.

    Thanks Mary
    and hey…cute! ;-)

  13. We have a WTE plant on Oahu and we have curbside recycling and we have a 73% return on bottles and cans and we STILL have a mountain of shrink wrapped trash sitting on a dock waiting to be shipped to the mainland because we cannot handle the volume with all that plus our landfills. The plant here has been a leader in sponsoring and supporting recycling. There is still much more than enough of all the rest–mixed household garbage, soiled cardboard, food wrappings, Styrofoam to warrant an expansion of the WTE facility. I think it’s unrealistic to think we will reach zero anything for another 20 years and in the meantime, our plant keeps the situation from becoming even more dire and provides electricity for thousands of residents.

  14. I like less carbon intensive energy projects whenever possible, but this hype for calling things renewable energy is interesting to say the least.

    I took physics in college – “energy cannot be created no destroyed” – hence no such thing as renewable.

  15. Very good article. Burning waste as a fuel for energy makes very much sense. The technology is much more than incineration, whose sole purpose was to make ashes; and are goo d expampels of a suucesful solution to pollution by all of us – We all make trash. It all cannot be recyled, or reused. We must do smarter things than landfill, and waste to energy is the one. Proven in Europe as the cornerstone of the waste solution. By the way, it is a low carbon fuel vs. fossil fuels. It is an alternate fuel & a reneable resource that we make everyday; and as a fuel, produces baseload power 24 hrs/day – rain or shine, wind or no wind. We should also look to alternate uses for hthe ash; as long as it passes the envrionmental testing that is requried.

  16. Great article, I love the balance of the argument. We’re having the same issue in question right now as well in Vancouver. And recently I went around talking to some people here in Vancouver incineration and waste management. And although it may not be as balanced as your article I think you might want to check the results of my film out. It looks at issues on what garbage is, whether it is renewable or not, product life cycles, incineration problems, different solutions to waste management from what to do at the beginning of creating waste to the end (composting, EPA’s, PAYT, reusing, etc)

    Here’s a link

  17. …and don’t forget about plasma gasification. Instead of burning the waste, by applying super-high temperature heat with no or very limited oxygen, waste is atomized rather than burned, creating syngas. You then use that syntesis gas to create something else, like diesel or jet fuel. WAY trickier operationally and much more capital-intensive than incinerators, it is nonetheless twice as energy-yield efficient as straight controlled burning.

  18. This article was a joy to read in that it appears to have been written by an author determined to learn and to educate rather than promote any single point of view. A refreshing change from the vast majority of available material.

    Messrs Holt and Soder have, in combination, pointed to an excellent opportunity. Plasma gasification while much more energy intensive in operation releases a significantly larger amount of energy from inputted waste materials. Its capacity to recover energy and sequester hazardous remainder as a non-leaching (vitrified) slag will become a significant part of the Waste-To-Value paradigm of the future.

    Gasification of a conventional sort (fixed and/or fluidized bed) has already been demonstrated on biomass at levels ranging from 15% to 100% with success in the production of liquid fuels with a net lifecycle GHG emission reduction of up to 75% with only 30% biomass (and 70% coal). Electrical power as well as energy for a district energy heating and cooling system is available (albeit at lower levels than with power production alone) in addition to the zero sulfur, zero aromatic and lower nitrogen oxide emitting fuels.

    This process was first proven in 1923 and has been in continuous use in a variety of settings around the world since then so there really isn’t any question as to its ability to perform. Economic viability has always been the problem with lower prices for fossil fuels – especially oil. That is much less of an issue in the current economic environment in that gasification of 100% coal can compete with crude oil at prices down to $86/bbl. Carbon sequestration can make 100% biomass gasification economically viable at crude prices as low as $66/bbl. There are a number of economic factors involved in these equations and so to compare them properly the entire report ought to be read. This information comes from a NETL report titled “Affordable, Low-Carbon Diesel Fuel from Domestic Coal and Biomass” DOE/NETL-2009/1349 and can be accessed at

    I am grateful to have stumbled across such a marvelous article with such astute and insightful commentary. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this issue.

    Cheers, all.

Leave a Comment