Incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste - far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy - far more polluting than coal burning.
Most expensive way to manage waste
The latest published national data showing that incinerators are more expensive than landfills is this 2005 Tip Fee Survey from the National Solid Waste Management Association. The last page documents that incinerators were always more expensive and that the cost gap has grown over time, to be 80% higher than landfilling in 2004. The gap is surely increasing as very expensive pollution controls are required as new regulations on incinerators are put into place. The cost of the 1,500 ton/day incinerator proposed for Frederick, MD is now over $500 million -- and actually around $1 billion, including the interest on the bonds. A strong zero waste program could be developed for a fraction of the cost, diverting at least as much waste from landfills, as incinerators only reduce the tonnage going to landfills by 70% (about 90% by volume).
Most expensive way to make energy
Incineration is 2.7 times more expensive than coal to build and 11 times more expensive to operate and maintain. Nuclear power is one of the most expensive forms of energy and trash incineration is still 1.5 times more expensive to build and 4.2 times more expensive to operate and maintain than nuclear. See: "Updated Capital Cost Estimates for Electricity Generating Plants," Energy Information Administration, November 2010, p.7, Table 1. http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/beck_plantcosts/
Incineration is not "waste-to-energy" but is a waste OF energy because it wastes four times more energy than it produces, when those resources must then be produced from raw materials instead of being recycled and composted.
Waste-to-Energy is a PR term. The reality is that incinerators waste 3-5 times more energy than they recover, if you compare the energy produced through incineration to the embodied energy lost by not recycling and composting those materials. This was documented by Jeffrey Morris years ago. See: Morris, Jeffrey, and Canzoneri, Diana, Recycling Versus Incineration: An Energy Conservation Analysis, Sound Resource Management Group (SRMG) Seattle, Washington, September, 1992.
Dirtiest way to manage waste
The cleaner you make the air (with more pollution controls), the more toxic you make the ash (as the highly toxic fly ash caught in the controls is mixed with the bottom ash before landfilling). Incineration makes landfills more toxic by dumping highly concentrated toxic ash into the landfill instead of the less-toxic larger volume of unburned waste.
(The sole exception where landfills are worse that incinerators is on greenhouse gas emissions. A life-cycle analysis by zero waste consultant, Jeffrey Morris, shows that landfills are worse for global warming than incinerators unless landfill gas capture rates are at least in the 50-70% range. The actual capture rate over the methane-generating life of a landfill is far lower than 50%. The paper used now-outdated global warming potentials for methane, and thus understates the magnitude of global warming impact from landfills. This can be addressed by diverting organics from landfills to compost sites or using anaerobic digestion before landfilling.)
Dirtiest way to produce energy
Incineration by any name (including various staged incineration or "waste conversion" technologies, such as plasma arc, gasification or pyrolysis) is not clean or safe, despite industry claims. Even with the increased requirements for pollution controls that came into effect since 2000, incinerators are STILL dirtier than coal in terms of air emissions. Incinerators still turn trash into toxic ash and toxic air emissions. This reality is inescapable, as even with the most modern pollution controls, pollution levels still exceed coal by nearly all measures.
According to the latest EPA data, trash incineration releases 2.5 times as much CO2 than coal per unit of energy produced. Even if you discount the "biogenic" fraction*, burning garbage is still 55% worse than coal for CO2 emissions. Continuing the use of existing trash incinerators or supporting the creation of new ones undermines any effort by a community to "green" itself and to reduce global warming emissions, if they're accounted for properly.
(* Discounting the "biogenic" fraction disregards IPCC accounting protocols that advise that such smokestack emissions cannot be assumed to be "carbon neutral." Such discounting also disregards the fact that natural carbon sequestration and storage capacities are significantly diminished, and that trees are not being replanted specifically to offset and store these emissions (rather than being cut back down to supply more paper, crops, etc.). Discounting these emissions assumes that trees and crops instantly suck up the extra pulse of CO2 released by burning paper, food scraps and other organic material in waste instead of taking several decades to do so, as they do in natural ecological cycles. The decades it would take to overcome the CO2 emissions from burning trash and "biomass" is time that we do not have if we are to avoid critical global warming tipping points.)
Trash incineration releases 28 times as much dioxin than coal, twice as much carbon monoxide, 3.2 times as much nitrogen oxides (NOx), 6-14 times as much mercury, nearly six times as much lead and 20% more sulfur dioxides.
Bad for recycling
The huge economic resources that need to be put into incineration are better spent on zero waste programs, which can reduce the amount of waste going to landfill by more than the 70% reduction in tonnage that incinerators accomplish -- and can do so at lower cost. Once a incinerator is built, recyclable paper and plastics will be diverted, since they have to feed the machine enough high-BTU material to operate effectively.
General resources against incineration:
U.S. Trash Incinerator Maps
Fluidized Bed Combustors (FBCs)
Incinerators-in-Disguise (Gasification / Plasma / Pyrolysis):
Cellulosic Ethanol, Fischer-Tropsch Coal-to-Liquids, Thermal Depolymerization and Waste-to-Fuels:
Biomass and Landfill gas:
The industry tries hard to pretend that plasma, gasification and pyrolysis are not forms of incineration. However, the European Union and the United States have defined all these technologies as forms of incineration (emphasis added).
The European Union defines incinerators as follows:
‘incineration plant’ means any stationary or mobile technical unit and equipment dedicated to the thermal treatment of wastes with or without recovery of the combustion heat generated. This includes the incineration by oxidation of waste as well as other thermal treatment processes such as pyrolysis, gasification or plasma processes in so far as the substances resulting from the treatment are subsequently incinerated.
This definition covers the site and the entire incineration plant including all incineration lines, waste reception, storage, on site pretreatment facilities, waste-fuel and air-supply systems, boiler, facilities for the treatment of exhaust gases, on-site facilities for treatment or storage of residues and waste water, stack, devices and systems for controlling incineration operations, recording and monitoring incineration conditions;
‘co-incineration plant’ means any stationary or mobile plant whose main purpose is the generation of energy or production of material products and: — which uses wastes as a regular or additional fuel; or — in which waste is thermally treated for the purpose of disposal.
For more info on the EU's Waste Incineration Directive, see the UK Environment Agency's website on waste incineration.
In the United States, the definition of "municipal waste combustor" (trash incinerator) includes gasification and pyrolysis:
In Feb 11, 1991, U.S. EPA published regulations in the Federal Register (56 FR 5488) that state:
Municipal waste combustor or MWC or MWC unit means any device that combusts, solid, liquid, or gasified MSW including, but not limited to, field-erected incinerators (with or without heat recovery), modular incinerators (starved air or excess air), boilers (i.e., steam generating units), furnaces (whether suspension-fired, grate-fired, mass-fired, or fluidized bed-fired) and gasification/combustion units. This does not include combustion units, engines, or other devices that combust landfill gases collected by landfill gas collection systems.
[MSW = Municipal Solid Waste (household and commercial trash)]
This regulation (40 CFR 60.51a) was later revised on Dec. 19, 1995 to include pyrolysis, making gasification part of a new pyrolysis definition:
Municipal waste combustor, MWC, or municipal waste combustor unit: (1) Means any setting or equipment that combusts solid, liquid, or gasified MSW including, but not limited to, field-erected incinerators (with or without heat recovery), modular incinerators (starved-air or excess-air), boilers (i.e., steam-generating units), furnaces (whether suspension-fired, grate-fired, mass-fired, air curtain incinerators, or fluidized bed-fired), and pyrolysis/combustion units. Municipal waste combustors do not include pyrolysis/combustion units located at plastics/ rubber recycling units (as specified in § 60.50a(k) of this section). Municipal waste combustors do not include internal combustion engines, gas turbines, or other combustion devices that combust landfill gases collected by landfill gas collection systems.
Pyrolysis/combustion unit means a unit that produces gases, liquids, or solids through the heating of MSW, and the gases, liquids, or solids produced are combusted and emissions vented to the atmosphere.
If there is any doubt that a "municipal waste combustor" is an incinerator, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clearly states that they're the same thing: "A municipal waste incinerator 'combusts' solid waste and thus is functionally synonymous with municipal waste combustor." See: http://www.epa.gov/ttn/nsr/gen/rm_2.html
Regarding landfill gas burners: while not regulated as "municipal waste combustors," landfill gas burners have also been referred to as incinerators by those in the industry, the trade press, county waste facility managers, and the federal government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Also, U.S. EPA Hazardous Waste Regulations (40 CFR 260.10) also state that plasma arc is an incineration technology:
Incinerator means any enclosed device that:
(1) Uses controlled flame combustion and neither meets the criteria for classification as a boiler, sludge dryer, or carbon regeneration unit, nor is listed as an industrial furnace; or
(2) Meets the definition of infrared incinerator or plasma arc incinerator.
Infrared incinerator means any enclosed device that uses electric powered resistance heaters as a source of radiant heat followed by an afterburner using controlled flame combustion and which is not listed as an industrial furnace.
Plasma arc incinerator means any enclosed device using a high intensity electrical discharge or arc as a source of heat followed by an afterburner using controlled flame combustion and which is not listed as an industrial furnace.
Industrial furnace means any of the following enclosed devices that are integral components of manufacturing processes and that use thermal treatment to accomplish recovery of materials or energy:
(i) The design and use of the device primarily to accomplish recovery of material products;
(ii) The use of the device to burn or reduce raw materials to make a material product;
(iii) The use of the device to burn or reduce secondary materials as effective substitutes for raw materials, in processes using raw materials as principal feedstocks;
(iv) The use of the device to burn or reduce secondary materials as ingredients in an industrial process to make a material product;
(v) The use of the device in common industrial practice to produce a material product; and
(vi) Other factors, as appropriate.
(1) Cement kilns
(2) Lime kilns
(3) Aggregate kilns
(4) Phosphate kilns
(5) Coke ovens
(6) Blast furnaces
(7) Smelting, melting and refining furnaces (including pyrometallurgical devices such as cupolas, reverberator furnaces, sintering machine, roasters, and foundry furnaces)
(8) Titanium dioxide chloride process oxidation reactors
(9) Methane reforming furnaces
(10) Pulping liquor recovery furnaces
(11) Combustion devices used in the recovery of sulfur values from spent sulfuric acid
(12) Halogen acid furnaces (HAFs) for the production of acid from halogenated hazardous waste generated by chemical production facilities where the furnace is located on the site of a chemical production facility, the acid product has a halogen acid content of at least 3%, the acid product is used in a manufacturing process, and, except for hazardous waste burned as fuel, hazardous waste fed to the furnace has a minimum halogen content of 20% as-generated.
(13) Such other devices as the Administrator may, after notice and comment, add to this list on the basis of one or more of the following factors: