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Municipal waste incineration is a poor solution for the twenty first century

Pubblicazione - 1 febbraio, 2006
Parere scientifico di Connett

Since 1985, in the US, over 300 trash incinerators, have been defeated or put on hold. In 1985, California had plans for 35 incinerators, only 3 were built, the rest were cancelled. In 1985, New Jersey had plans for 22 trash incinerators, only 5 have been built. A sixth planned for Mercer County was finally defeated after many years of struggle, in November 1996. Since 1994, more incinerators have been closed down than those that have gone on line.

Incineration is not an appropriate waste management solution in the twenty first century. They are formidably expensive and very few jobs are created for this massive economic investment. On the other hand, if the community puts its efforts into source separation, reuse and repair, recycling and composting, a very large number of jobs are created, both in the actual handling of the waste and in the secondary industries which utilise the recovered material.

Fortunately, the public's fears about the pollutants released and those captured in the residues, as well as incineration's enormous economic costs, when made visible, have dramatically slowed down the building of these facilities in both northern and southern countries alike. If one avoids the beguiling but inaccurate label "waste-to-energy" one can see that these facilities do not belong in a future in which sustainability will become the key issue for survival.

In my view, when you build an incinerator in your community you are advertising to the world that you were not clever enough, either politically or technically, to recover your discarded resources in a manner which is responsible to your local community or future generations.

Simply put incineration represents business as usual when the planet cannot afford business as usual. Incineration is simply not sustainable. It does not make sense to spend huge amounts of money destroying resources we should be sharing with the future.

Incineration puts the focus on the wrong end of the problem. Our task is not to get more and more sophisticated about destroying waste but to stop making those things which inevitably become waste. Thus the front end of the problem is bad industrial design: badly designed products and packaging. The concept of throwaway objects and packaging has no place in a sustainable society.

It is this need to shift the focus from the back end to the front end which has led to notion of a "Zero Waste strategy" currently being practised in Nova Scotia; Canberra. Australia; throughout New Zealand and San Francisco and other Californian communities, with remarkable results. Many cities have now achieved diversions from landfill of over 50%, some over 60%, without resorting to incineration. In addition to the familiar source separation programs (particularly door-to-door) resulting in composting of clean organics, reusing and repairing of many household items; recycling of materials back to industry; special collection of household toxics and smaller and safer interim landfills which receive only non-toxic materials and biologically stabilised organics, is the concept of the "Residual Screening and Research Facility". Such a facility - without the research component - has its prototype in Nova Scotia. This facility - built in front of the landfill - receives the residuals (the stuff not currently composted or reused or recycled or poorly separated) and examines them carefully on conveyor belts, where well protected workers remove bulky objects, more recyclables, more toxics and leave the dirty organic fraction for shredding and biological stabilisation.

I envisage a research component being added to this, where perhaps an adjunct from the local University or Technical School, is located in the Facility. The purpose of this component is that faculty and students study the composition of the residuals and work on two things: a) develop new uses for some of these discarded materials and where that is not possible b) offer better industrial design of such objects to industry.

It is interesting to compare the two different approaches: with incineration you convert three tons of waste into one ton of toxic ash that no one wants. With the zero waste approach you convert three tons of waste into one ton of compostables, one ton of recyclables and one ton of EDUCATION! We educate ourselves, we educate our decision makers and we educate industry. The education is simple: if we can't reuse it, can't reuse it, or can't compost it, industry shouldn't be making it!

One of the reasons I have now come to Italy 21 times since 1996 and given several hundred presentations in practically every region and major city, is that I believe Italy can make a huge contribution to the Zero Waste approach. It is no secret that Italy has some of the best designers in the world. I believe if they were challenged they could lead the world in designing waste out of the system. Italy has also had some of the most creative and inventive people in the world (Leonardo, Galileo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Avogadro, Cannizaro, Modiglianni, Dali, Vivaldi, Verdi, Puccini … the list could go on and on). What we have found in numerous places around the world is that a little creativity at the front of the problem can save millions at the back end. It is already beginning to happen in Italy. Your supermarkets are introducing equipment where customers can refill their own bottles with shampoo, detergent , water and wine. Think of the millions of plastics bottles that could keep out of landfills!

Sadly, this amazing potential for positive change is being thwarted by an Italian law which gives massive energy subsidies to incinerators. The international group Greenpeace has done an excellent job drawing attention to this short-sighted law and educating the public to the dangers of incineration and providing information about the more sustainable alternatives described above. I salute the brave young men and women of Greenpeace who often put their own lives in peril to draw attention to environmental abuse which stretches from the hunting of whales to the contamination of our food chains with dioxin. Essays I have authored on these issues can be found at and