Every time you throw something away, you’re hurting the planet – here’s why

Which is better - landfill or incineration?

We are a nation with a whole lot of rubbish. The latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs show that, on average, we produce 409kg of waste per person per year. This includes recyclable materials such as newspapers, glass bottles, and plastics. However, the recycling rate stands at 45.7% - below the EU target of 50% recycled household waste by 2020. So, not all recyclable material is being sent off to be recycled.

What happens to all our non-recyclable waste then? Well, a large proportion of it is being sent to incineration to be burned. In fact, the amount being sent to incinerations (or ‘energy recovery’ plants) tripled between 2010/2011 and 2016/2017. London, the West Midlands, and the North-East already burn more than they recycle. The 44 waste incinerators across the UK burned 10.9 million tonnes of rubbish last year - much of this was in England, where it accounted for 42% of waste disposal.

This is only likely to increase in the coming years with China now rejecting any exported waste and the potential of Brexit making exports to Europe that bit more difficult. 12.5% of our waste currently heads for landfill, but with the EU’s restrictions on landfill, most of that will also be burned as well.

In Sheffield, this statistic is even lower – with around 1% of waste being sent to landfill, in comparison to the two thirds being sent off for incineration. But is incineration really better than landfill for the environment?

Landfill

We’ve been using landfill as a method to dispose of our waste since the time of the Ancient Greeks, but can we carry on burying our masses of waste in a sustainable way? Landfill is great for getting rubbish out of the way and keeping our streets and homes clean and hygienic. They are also relatively convenient to use and don’t require too many resources.

It has also been argued that landfills are relatively safer than other waste management techniques. Incinerators in particular can be quite hazardous for their toxic byproducts, and of course, landfills have their share of risks also, but not quite as significant as other methods. But more on this later.

However, landfill also has its fair share of drawbacks. They release damaging amounts of methane gas, a greenhouse gas, that if not collected contributes to the erosion of the ozone layer and climate change. Methane has a higher heat trapping capacity than carbon dioxide, so is arguably worse to be released into the atmosphere.

They also, if not properly sealed, can contaminate the surrounding land and water sources with toxic chemicals. And this also contributes to pollution and climate change. But, one thing to note is that some of the organic matter degrades so slowly that it can be considered as stored or sequestered – so this can be deducted from its total emissions.

We are also running out of land for these landfills, and so an alternative waste disposal method is needed. Yes, we should be putting a lot more focus on reducing and recycling to begin with, but unfortunately, we won’t be living in a world with zero waste anytime soon. And so, we need to also have in place a sustainable method of waste disposal for all our rubbish.

Incineration

As previously mentioned, incineration is booming but is it any better than burying our waste? Well, it requires less land use than landfill, so that’s a good thing. And more importantly, incinerating waste can be used as a source of energy.

In relation to Sheffield, Veolia state on their website that “The Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) in Sheffield, generates electricity for the National Grid and heat for the city's award-winning District Energy Network from the rubbish you and your family put in your black wheeled bin.” So, at least some use is coming out of our rubbish.

Plus, a research study conducted by University of Manchester found that waste incineration offered significant savings of greenhouse gases compared to that of landfill. And it avoids the main consequences of landfill - leaking of toxic chemicals into the ground and the release of methane.

However, creating energy from waste also produces residual incinerator bottom ash (IBA), which still requires waste disposal or storage – usually landfill! And just like burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases and nuclear plants produce dangerous waste – the gases produced by incineration can also be harmful to the planet. But there is the technology now to make these gases safe to release.

But there are some who argue that incineration is not all that climate neutral. Zero Waste Europe state that incinerators actually emit more carbon dioxide than coal, natural gas, or oil-fired power plants.

Plus, for incineration plants to run efficiently, they need consistent and regular amounts of waste. This means that we might need to burn more waste than we have, which could lead to importing material from elsewhere, and this creates an even bigger carbon footprint.

The increasing trend in incineration could also lead to a reduction in research and innovation into resource/waste recovery methods, as investment is diverted to building these huge and expensive plants.

And this is definitely research that we need desperately. Especially as it is not entirely clear what the better method is out of landfill and incineration. Both come with some major downfalls. And even though burning waste for energy might be a better idea for now, it is not a long-term solution.

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So, which is better?

Both landfill and incineration as waste disposal methods come with their environmental drawbacks. And there is no strong argument either way. Both methods are responsible for the release of emissions and harmful byproducts. However, incineration does also provide an energy source, so it does have some use to it.

We are probably better off focusing our energies on reducing our waste in the first place as this is how we can truly make a positive impact on our fragile planet. And for the things we cannot reduce, we should be making every effort to recycle them.

At Intelligent Facility Solutions, we prioritise reducing waste and it is at the forefront of what we do. We don’t want to contribute to the excessive waste and damage we are seeing day in and day out.

We want to eliminate unnecessary waste streams where possible and provide sustainable alternatives where it’s not. We want to provide solutions.

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Written by: Shahed Ezaydi

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