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[greenyes] re: Incineration vs. landfill

On alternatives to both incineration & landfill, see:

Incineration & Why It Must Stop!

Politically it does not make sense to exclusively promote the most problematic, most expensive and most contentious alternative to landfill. Only once reuse, recycling and composting have been maximised, should incinerators even be considered.

Every time a local community burns something, the larger community has to replace it, with all the huge energy costs of processing primary resources and manufacturing new products that entails. It is growth in primary resouce use and depletion that is giving us global warming. It is only through reuse, recycling and composting that we can partially reduce these energy and pollution costs. This is where a globalized green conscience is required.

"Recycling saves more energy than incineration yields.

"The most telling argument against the waste-to-energy promotion comes from two studies performed in the US which show that if the currently marketable recyclable material, which is typically burned in a modern trash incinerator, was recycled instead, some 3-5 times as much energy would be saved compared to that produced from it being burned. The reason for this big difference is that incineration can only recover the some of the calorific value contained in the trash. It cannot recover any of the energy invested in the extraction, processing, fabrication and chemical synthesis involved in the manufacture of the objects and materials in the waste stream. Reuse and recycling can."

- Municipal waste incineration: A poor solution for the twenty first century, Dr. Paul Connett, 4th Annual International Management Conference 1998


It is unlikely that a solution to our waste problems can totally eliminate landfill. But we can surely utilize landfill only when absolutely necessary. We cannot countenance raw waste landfill, or landfill that receives ash, bulk waste, and material that the incinerator operators reject. However, landfill that accepts a residue from intensive source separation, reduction, reuse, recycling, toxic removal and composting may have tp be accepted.

But we can make such a landfill even better, if we insist that it be preceded by a screening facility to ensure that only non-toxic and non-biodegradable material is buried.

Unfortunately this approach is not popular with local and regulatory authorities. Their approach consists of lining systems, leachate collection, leachate treatment, daily cover, final cover and capping as the way of protecting the environment from dumping things into a hole in the ground. Because of the "economy of scale", this approach of "controlling what comes out" tends to drive the building of regional mega- landfills. These excite intense opposition from host communities, and usually have to be pushed through undemocratically. The alternative approach of "controlling what goes in", means that we can return to small, more politically acceptable, community controlled landfills. Yet, of course, it is this very "economy of scale" that attracts the authorities to it. It is, in the short run, less expensive, apparently, than changing the entire waste management system - which we can only defer, as it must happen eventually anyway.


While most people often describe the alternative to landfilling and incineration as "recycling", in fact, after source separation (discussed below), "composting" is probably more important. This is because the material which causes most of the problems in landfills is organic (biodegradable) waste. This otherwise relatively benign material, once it gets into a landfill, creates methane which contributes to global warming, and an acid leachate, which in turn can move toxins into the surface or ground water. Composting, at a far lower environmental and economic cost than incineration, can keep this organic material out of landfills.

Recyling & Reuse:

When looking at the "waste" in our homes it is apparent that it is in essence made up of most of the material we paid for yesterday but don't want today. Waste is all this material mixed up and thrown away. It can be unmade with source separation. This is a vital first step in solving the waste crisis.

"With source separation we can get reusable objects, materials that can be recycled back to industry, materials that can be composted (preferably in our backyards), some household toxins and an educated household. With manufacturers, and especially the packaging industry, producing ever more complicated mixtures of materials, some objects once separated still pose problems. However, rather than allowing these poorly designed materials drive the building of expensive incinerators, these "left over" materials should drive research into better industrial design."
- Municipal waste incineration: A pooor solution for the twenty first century, Dr. Paul Connett, 4th Annual International Management Conference 1998

In Kent there has been a drive towards local kerb collection of recyclable materials. These have been organized by concerned citizens, and have flourished and become businesses employing genuine unskilled local labour. They create jobs that have a trickle down for the local economy. Many are needed, on small sites, across a region, to do the job. They crate a local solution, locally managed, with local economic gains. Everything that big business in league with unaccountable well-off local authority officers cannot and will not provide. So why are there not more?
Integrated Waste Management:

It seems unlikely that a solution to our waste problems can totally eliminate landfill or even all incineration. And, certainly, a compromise alternative seems a constructive method of gaining serious consideration when opposing incinerators.

Those who favor incinerators will often say "We agree with you about the necessity to maximise reduction, reuse and recycling but you are still going to have some stuff left over - doesn't it make sense to burn this material rather than to dump it in a landfill?" This argument goes by the name "integrated waste management". It sounds good, but rarely delivers what it promises. Once an incinerator is built, it soaks up all the available funds. Little is left over for recycling and composting. Plus, once the incinerator is up and running, it will need all the waste it can get in order to keep going at an efficient burn temperature and in order to turn a penny. Other new options will be resisted.

However, if the local authority waste plan allows an increase in waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting, this can save money by reducing landfill. In this way you can "integrate" the environmental solution with the economic solution. This "integrates" with maximized incineration nicely.

This is, however, not the only thing that is meant by Integrated Waste Management. Although it is wise of communities in opposition to not fall into the trap of supporting Integrated Waste Management as an alternative, since it is easily co-opted by unscrupulous companies, the term can be construed in a positive way.

The idea of combining necessary source seperation for limited landfill and incineration alongside all possible recycling for reuse, and composting, is a vision of Integrated Waste Management that is entirely pragmatic and as green as it is possible to be with the present consumerist waste avalanche.

As a compromise solution, though, IRP would possibly be accepted as the Best Practicable Environmental Option in the short to medium-term by, for example, the county council in East Sussex and Kent.

The Future:

The American, Paul Connett, Professor of Chemistry at St. Lawrence University, has this vision of how to manage waste in the future:

"In my view, the five principles, or imperatives, we need to apply in order to solve the waste crisis in an environmentally sound and economically cost effective manner, are:
Keep the solution simple
Keep the solution local
Integrate the solution with the local economy
Integrate the solution with local community development
Make sure the solution is sustainable"
- Municipal waste incineration: A pooor solution for the twenty first century, Dr. Paul Connett, 4th Annual International Management Conference 1998

Kerb to kerb projects like that described in the recyling section of this page meet these criteria, where our states approach to waste management cannot.

The future needs these type of solutions. Sustainability is a real problem. The idea of resource depletion is not new - green advocates have been banging on about it for decades. But when you drive a car headlong at a wall, saying generation after generation that you need do nothing because you are not there yet, it is quite inevitable that you will damn well get there soon. We are well on the way, and even if there is a generation or so to go, it is in the nature if ecological systems to steer badly due to their complexity and their sheer inertia. If we can get our hands on the reins now, it may already be too late. We are surely obliged to try.

It has long been argued that cheap fossil fuels conceal our non-sustainability. The fragile biosphere of our planet is threatened because industrialised nations have imposed a mechanical system that handles material linearly, onto a biological system which handles materials in a circular fashion. The linear or clockwork approach is not sustainable on a planet of finite resources. There is a common view on the green-left that non-sustainability has been hidden from us for over 200 years by the apparent "abundance" of fossil fuels [although there are many industrially irreplaceable rare metals that will run out sooner, and cause as much damage]. The end result has been the conversion of material resources to waste, and at an accelerating rate.

Traditional Newtonian, Cartesian, Hobbesian worldviews, given a monetarist spin by believers in the "invisible hand", an economic god that will sort everything out in the end, propel us towards this entropic end. Economists have rationalised a system that lives off capital rather than income, invoking the "free market", and lauding the much misunderstood Adam Smith [who will be spinning in his grave].

The use of incineration to handle our waste is a typical behavior in such a system. It is overconsumption that is giving us both local and global waste and pollution crises. It is only by reusing, recycling and - most importantly - reducing consumption that we can do anything about either. The dustbin in our garden is the most concrete connection each of us has with the global crisis.

Overconsumption is only increased by national economies that measure their success in the global economy by their GNP rather than the welfare of their citizens and the quality of their environment. Most people have been seduced into a desperate false consciousness defined by material "needs". Vance Packard had much to say about this twentieth century trend as far back as the fifties and sixties. Today he would be saddened at how his, and others, warnings have fallen on such totally deaf ears. The advertising industry, via the print and electronic mediums - television especially - are the most obvious culprits, but it is the entire workings of modern consumerist capital that are to blame.

As long as the prevailing western freemarket philosophy rules, it is a trueism, and not an exaggeration, to say that our species is doomed. We need to find the strength to put human relations and community building at the centre of our lives. As we increase our understanding of natural ecology, so we must increase our understanding of social ecology. The need for stability through diversity negates the old European Left, but the enthroning of capital as the new God negates the relevance of the mainstream Western ideals, too, to a positive future.

Educating our citizens to reduce, reuse, recycle and compost is not a total solution, but it is a fine beginning. On the other hand, every incinerator built delays this discussion and squanders the opportunity to move our communities and our species in the right direction to fight overconsumption and the global warming it spawns. It is even possible that, due to horrific effects of organochlorines, continued incinerator building may imperil our, and many other, species even apart from the other damage our current sick paradigm can inflict.

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