An incinerator is an industrial tool used in the treatment of municipal solid waste which uses a process of waste combustion to create electricity. This process is also known as waste-to-energy, but it is not without its hazards. Although the process of controlled combustion of waste is beneficial in that it reduces the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill, there are numerous environmental implications of using an incinerator to dispose of waste. These include the release of airborne toxins from burning plastics and metals, the contamination of food and water in the area the incinerator is in use and it inadvertently hinders the prevention of waste that could otherwise reduce the amount of toxic materials combusted for fuel.
Waste-to-Energy: Environmental Impact
In theory, waste-to-energy is a beneficial method for the production of electricity that does not require fossil fuels. However, the process is rife with negative externalities. In other words, the process has negative consequences that arise directly and indirectly from it. Environmentally speaking, using an incinerator to combust waste to generate electricity is largely untenable unless the proper safeguards can be put into place that reduce its hazardous effects. The environmental impact of an incinerator used in large scale waste combustion directly relates to human health, for people are not separate from their environment.
Combustion Releases Toxins
The first major impact of burning waste with an incinerator is that it produces toxins from burning certain materials. If it were only organic materials burned, it would be different, but municipal solid waste combustion facilities often burn everything from organic materials to plastics and metals. Heavy metals, furans and dioxins are left behind in the waste of the combusted material, whether in water, gas or ash. Ash is created at every point in the combustion cycle, from the bottom of the waste pile all the way up through the smoke stack. Likewise, at every point, toxic waste residue builds up. The ash may contain many of these hazardous byproducts, but then the ash becomes one itself.
Contamination of Food and Water
After the toxic byproducts of the combusted waste are released either into the air, water or contained in ash, absent adequate measures designed to prevent this, the toxins can make their way into the food and water supply of the areas surrounding the incinerator. By impacting the environmental in this catastrophic manner, human health is put at risk. The carcinogenic qualities of many of the chemicals that escape into the atmosphere put people at risk of disease, while at the same time the food and water they consume could be tainted by the very same byproducts.
Hinders Waste Prevention
What is most apparent is the need to prevent much of the waste from entering the waste-to-energy plant in the first place. While organic waste is combustible and produces none of the toxic compounds that burning plastics and metals does, much of what is burned in municipal incinerators is recyclable or reusable. Even burning organic waste produces methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so composting should be encouraged. In short, an incinerator hinders the prevention of waste by favoring the short-term benefit over the long-term hazard.
At an industrial level, the use of an incinerator to combust waste may produce electricity, but its effects on the environment are devastating. From releasing toxic particles into the air, contaminating surrounding food and water sources and by discouraging recycling and composting, waste-to-energy combustion is a solution to a problem that creates more problems.