Our planet has a surface area of 510,072,000 km2, of which only 148,940,000 km2 is land (Williams, 2009). As the world's population continues increasing past six billion people, consumption of goods will without a doubt continue to rise. With more consumption comes more trash and more landfills occupying precious space on our planet's surface. Although landfills are the most common method for dealing with trash, new technologies have given rise to creative solutions to this age-old problem. One of the most creative trash disposing solutions is Waste-to-Energy (WtE), which converts waste/trash into electricity or heat via incineration. Advocates of this technology explain it as "killing two birds with one stone" because trash that is disposed of and converted into energy provides heat and power for local communities (Clapp, Magee II, Ahlert, and Kosson, 2006). Although this technology can be advantageous, the toxic emissions and toxic metals released by trash incineration plants are detrimental to our health and environment, and, as such, outweigh all benefits of this technology.
One downside of burning trash for the purpose of creating energy is toxic emissions. Trash incinerators release nitric dioxide (NO2), toxic metals, and dioxins. Nitric oxide (NO) that is produced by trash incinerator plants forms when nitrogen and oxygen are exposed to high temperatures during combustion. Upon exposure to sunlight, nitric oxide (NO) transforms into nitric dioxide (NO2), which contributes to the formation of smog (Connett, 1998). Therefore, one can argue that trash incinerators are partially responsible for respiratory health problems such as coughing, chest pains, nausea, and even lung cancer; all of which are associated with smog inhalation.
Besides releasing nitric dioxide (NO2), trash incinerators also release toxic metals that are detrimental to our health. Lead, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, and mercury are released in small particles when trash incinerator plants burn plastics (Chandler, Eighmy, Hartlen, Kosson, Sawell, Van Der Sloot, and Vehlow, 1997). Once inhaled, these microscopic toxic metals pass through our lungs and eventually find themselves in our blood stream. In doing so, they damage our cells and cause vital organs to age faster as they navigate through our bodies (HealingDaily, 2002). Furthermore, toxic metals like mercury not only affect our health, but our environment as well.
Mercury negatively impacts the environment when air molecules carrying this toxic metal settle on bodies of water. Certain lakes, for instance, contain so much mercury that fish absorb the majority of it through their lungs and into their bloodstream, which causes serious problems for ecosystems that depend on fish consumption. Birds and mammals such as the Florida panthers have experienced noticeable declines in their respective populations as a result of consuming mercury-infected fish (Environmental Protection Agency, 1997). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this decline in populations is caused by mercury's ability to kill, reduce fertility, and slow growth/development within species (1997). While mercury and the previously mentioned toxic metals pose significant environmental and health problems, the impact of these metals is miniscule when compared to dioxins released from trash incinerators.
"Dioxins are some of the most toxic chemicals known to science" (ActionPA, 2001). Dioxins are a group of over a hundred chemicals that are found in abundance in the environment. These toxic chemicals are a byproduct of trash incineration - formed when chlorine-based chemical compounds are burned with hydrocarbons (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 1997). Waste incineration rarely separates trash, and so it is no surprise that chlorine compounds are sometimes burned with hydrocarbons. According to the International Agency for Research of Cancer (IRAC), dioxins such as TCDD, the most toxic dioxin on Earth, have the ability to cause cancer (1997). While this information might have been true then, it is important to question IRAC's credibility before arriving at a conclusion. Initially, the year IRAC's study was conducted (in 1997) raised doubts about the technology used to determine that dioxins cause cancer, but the United States' National Toxicology Program confirmed IRAC's results (2001). In addition to causing cancer, dioxins are also associated with birth defects, decreased fertility, diabetes, learning disabilities, skin disorders, and lung problems.
Another downside of trash incineration is the difficulties that come with ash disposal. Burning millions of tons of trash will inevitably create ash that needs to be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. There are two kinds of ash: 1) bottom ash that falls down in the furnace and 2) fly ash, which is made up of airborne particles of silicon dioxide (SiO2) and calcium oxide (CaO). Unlike bottom ash, fly ash is considered highly toxic and expensive to properly dispose of. According to Dr. Paul Connett, a professor at St. Lawrence University, the following trade-off exists when disposing of fly ash: "If handled properly, ash makes incineration prohibitively expensive, for all but the wealthiest communities. If handled improperly, it poses both short and long term health and environmental dangers" (1998). From this we can conclude that low socio-economic communities are more exposed to fly ash than high socio-economic ones. In addition to this, Dr. Connett also pointed out ways in which different countries disposed of fly ash. The Netherlands, for example, uses 35% of its fly ash for asphalt. In the United States, however, fly ash is mixed with municipal trash and, at times, used to cover up landfills (Connett, 1998). It seems a little ironic to use a highly toxic combination of chemical residue to cover up less toxic materials, but that is the current logic used by our government. While trash incineration has many downsides, it is imperative that we take all factors into consideration before arriving at a conclusion on this issue. Therefore, we must use a cost-benefit analysis to determine if trash incineration is worth the health and environmental dangers mentioned above.
Supporters of waste incinerator plants believe that unemployment in local communities decreases because of the jobs created by these plants. However, this is only partially true. While no one can argue about the jobs available during the construction of trash incinerator plants - once operational, the advanced technology used in these places require only a hundred workers (Themelis, 2003). In addition to the false belief that trash incinerators significantly reduce unemployment for local communities, supporters of this Waste-to-Energy technology truly believe that burning trash can solve most of our energy problems. There is no denying that waste incineration creates energy, but does it do so in an efficient and cost-effective manner? On average, trash incinerators are 20% efficient, meaning that the total trash burned for energy creation only yields a 20% return of electricity and/or heat (Connett, 1998). Furthermore, "if the United States burned all its municipal waste it would contribute less than 1% of the country's energy needs" (Connett, 1998). Evidently, efficiency should not be associated with Waste-to-Energy technology. In terms of costs of building waste incinerator plants, the average price tag ranges from $178 million to $600 million (Themelis, 2003). Taxpayers usually enter into binding contracts with builders of these plants. These contracts, lasting anywhere from a month to a year, establish a fixed monthly rate to be paid to the local trash incinerator plant by households in exchange for their services. Such contracts represent a desperate attempt by waste incinerator builders to cover their sunk fixed cost that went into constructing these inefficient and highly expensive plants (Connett, 1998). While it is important to understand the costs as well as the health and environmental implications of waste incinerators, we must also explore a possible alternative to this Waste-to-Energy technology.
Modern day society either buries or burns trash. Although trash incineration seems like a good idea on paper, it is far from the solution to trash disposal and energy that supporters claim it to be. Instead of focusing on ways of disposing trash, society should concentrate on ways of reducing it. Since waste is directly correlated with consumption, reducing consumption decreases the amount of trash present. According to Roger Miller, Daniel Benjamin, and Douglas North, authors of The Economics of Public Issues, the best way to do this is through basic economics (2009). The first law of demand states that an increase in the price of a good or service results in a decrease in quantity demanded. With this in mind, Seattle, WA reduced the amount of trash its residents generated by charging a monthly fee of $16.55 per garbage can picked up during the week and $5.35 for materials separated for recycling. This resulted in a 22% decrease in total trash buried and a 24% increase in voluntary recycling during the first year of this program (Miller, Benjamin, North, 2009). However, even this alternative is flawed.
After seeing Seattle’s results, Charlottesville, Virginia began implementing an identical trash reduction method. This small town began “charging $0.80 per 32-gallon bag or can collected at the curb” (Miller, Benjamin, North, 2009). At first glance, this trash reduction method seemed to work even better than Seattle’s program because Charlottesville’s volume of trash reduced 37% within a year (Miller, Benjamin, North, 2009). However, this reduction was somewhat exaggerated. Initially, Charlottesville residents viewed the garbage can prices as annoying, but they did not mind them that much. Overtime, more and more people became fed up with the concept of paying for the privilege of consumption because, after all, trash is a direct result of consumption. To reduce the amount households paid for each garbage can, people did everything in their power to fit as much trash as possible into their garbage cans. This literally meant stomping the trash to the bottom of the can, adding more, and stomping it again until the garbage can reached maximum capacity. Charlottesville residents were able to find this creative solution to reducing the amount they paid for their trash disposal because the town did not specify a standard weight per garbage can. In addition to stomping, Charlottesville residents also engaged in midnight dumping. This practice included activities such as sneaking around at night to dump one’s trash into commercial Dumpsters, or even in neighbors’ garbage cans. Needless to say, for this alternative to work, stricter garbage can standards and regulations need to be applied by cities and towns.
To conclude, the toxic emissions and toxic metals released by trash incineration plants are detrimental to our health and environment, and, as a result, outweigh all benefits of this technology. Toxic emissions such as nitric dioxide (NO2) and dioxins are connected to numerous health problems ranging from acute coughing to cancer. Equally concerning, toxic metals damage cells and cause vital organs to age faster. While trash incinerator plants benefit local communities with the creation of new jobs, they only create approximately one hundred employment opportunities per plant. In terms of energy creation, it is important to note that trash incineration is an inefficient and costly means of producing energy. A possible alternative to waste incineration is charging people per garbage can of trash. This reduces the amount of trash generated, but it also leads to innovative ways “beating the system.” Stomping trash into garbage cans and midnight dumping have become common practices in communities where garbage cans are priced. There is no telling whether this alternative to waste incineration will spread to communities across the country. However, based on the concerns noted above, we may see a significant decrease in trash incineration plants in the near future.
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