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Is Incineration Holding Back Recycling?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Organic Transitions page.

For communities short on landfill space, "waste-to-energy" incineration sounds like a bulletproof solution: Recycle all you can, and turn the rest into heat or electricity. That's how it's been regarded in much of Europe, where nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste is burned in 450 incinerators, and increasingly in the United States, where dozens of cities and towns are considering new, cutting-edge plants.

But leaders of the international zero-waste movement, which seeks to reuse all products and send nothing to landfills or incinerators, say incineration falls short on the energy front and actually encourages waste. Many "zero wasters" - including groups such as Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA - have become ardent opponents of the technology, contending that proponents have co-opted the carefully crafted zero-waste label by suggesting that burning to produce energy isn't actually wasting. In Europe, where incineration capacity continues to grow despite already exceeding the trash supply in some countries, the showdown goes beyond semantics to the heart of the meaning of sustainability.

While the world certainly has no shortage of it, trash is not renewable - not in the way that sunlight, wind, and geothermal heat are. Producing goods from virgin, finite resources requires energy - lots of it. Once the goods become trash, zero-waste advocates say, burning them in an incinerator destroys those resources for good.

Incinerators can provide heat for municipal heating systems or steam for electricity, recovering some of the energy used to produce their fuel. But even given the environmental costs of recycling, which include transporting and processing the material, zero wasters contend that it makes far more sense to recycle than to incinerate.   



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