Why doesn't the U.S. incinerate more trash?

From EarthTalk.org
Should the U.S. incinerate more of its trash?
Should the U.S. incinerate more of its trash?

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that Sweden incinerates most of its trash. Why don’t we do more of this in the U.S., given that we’re running out of landfill space? 

-- Oscar Gentry, New Bern, North Carolina
    Sweden does burn the vast majority of its trash—only 1 percent of the country’s waste ends up in landfills—and even makes a profit by importing trash from neighboring countries to process in its high-efficiency, low-emission incinerators. That makes sense, given the huge toll landfills take on the environment, leaking liquids into surrounding soils and polluting groundwater while sending huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
    Burning waste in an uncontrolled setting is undeniably terrible for the environment, given the huge load of carbon dioxide, dioxin and volatile organic compounds sent skyward. But in a modern waste incineration facility, excess gases leftover after burning the trash undergo a thorough filtering and scrubbing process that complies with stringent environmental standards delineated in the Clean Air Act in the U.S. and even stricter rules across the European Union. Furthermore, incinerating trash reduces its volume by 87 percent, which directly translates to an equivalent reduction in the amount of space required for landfills.
    At this point, much of the world has adopted waste-to-energy technologies, with almost 800 facilities around the world. In Europe, there are about 400 waste-to-energy facilities in operation. In the U.S., however, there are only 77. This is somewhat surprising, given that landfills are America’s third-largest methane emitter. Additionally, America is one of the largest waste producers in the world, both as a nation and per capita. Why not convert all this waste into energy?
    But waste-to-energy has faced many stumbling blocks in the U.S. Public stigma against waste-to-energy technology has played a significant role in preventing widespread adoption of this technology here. It seems Americans just can’t accept the idea that burning trash could actually be a good thing for the environment or public health. While this attitude is understandable, it would fall apart if more of us knew the facts.
    Another issue for waste-to-energy in the U.S. is economics. In Europe and other countries, waste-to-energy plants receive government funding, and landfill rates are often higher. In the U.S, it is often cheaper to put waste in a landfill than to turn it into energy.
    Waste-to-energy could still have a future in America. In many areas where landfill rates are expensive, the technology is a promising solution. If rates continue to rise, and the government decides to reallocate some of its funding, we might see more waste-to-energy plants come online before long.
    More data from other countries about the benefits of waste-to-energy could accelerate this adoption process. Finally, advances in scrubbing and cleaning technologies will likely reduce the negative impact of incineration even more.
    You can help facilitate the transition by encouraging local officials to consider it as a viable option for expanding waste-management capacity given the shrinking amount of landfill space available to municipalities everywhere and lack of other good options for getting rid of our garbage.


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