Should the United States Be Building More Garbage Incinerators?

Reader Contribution by Sean Rosner

Recently the New York Times ran an article about the success some European countries have had with burning household trash and industrial waste to provide heat and electricity for their citizens.

The article uses the city of Horsholm, Denmark as an example. Only four percent of Horsholm’s waste goes to a landfill. The town recycles 61 percent, and 34 percent gets sent to waste-to-energy plants to be incinerated. Horsholm residents receive 80 percent of their heat and 20 percent of their electricity from burned waste.

Though waste incinerators have traditionally been known to spew a great deal of pollution from their smokestacks, this isn’t the case anymore. New, state-of-the-art incinerators in Denmark are equipped with special filters that catch pollutants and small particulates. The article says that plants now emit between 10 and 20 percent of the European Union’s limits for air and water discharge, which are already strict. All this has some European countries excited about the potential of waste-to-energy plants.

In contrast, the article points out that though the United States currently has 87 functioning waste incinerators, few of them were built within the past 15 years, and there are currently no plans to build any more. This is partly because of high up-front costs of building waste-to-energy plants and partly because of lack of desire to live near a power plant (the waste-to-energy plants need proximity to the energy recipients to be most effective). Also, some people feel that the idea of using waste for energy conflicts with the idea of trying to minimize waste in the first place.

Instead, the majority of our waste goes into landfills, which this 2009 study (PDF), conducted in part by the EPA, says leads to more emissions than burning the waste in an incinerator would.

So, should we be building more garbage incinerators in the United States? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.