The Victorian state government plans for a transition to a circular economy includes a role for waste incineration as part of its waste to energy strategy. The state government’s own documents, do however, outline risks such as over-investing in waste incineration. This article hopes to inform the best practice and policy on the path to build a circular economy in Victoria and beyond, and it explores the drawbacks and perverse incentives of waste incineration.
Waste incineration, the practice of burning waste to generate energy, is proposed as a sustainable way to deal with mounting volumes of landfill. It is an ingenious way of turning someone’s rubbish into treasure, and around the world, businesses are cashing in.
In Sweden and Denmark waste is used as input in district heating schemes and shiploads are imported to supply the fuel. It is not surprising that waste incineration is often mentioned as a solution for Australia to shift towards a sustainable circular economy. But is waste incineration too good to be true?
Not only does waste incineration raise important questions about its impact on human health, but it also doesn’t stack up as a viable long-term option on the path towards net-zero emissions.
Importantly, whilst large-scale waste incineration in Australia may help us reduce the need for landfills and increase the recycling percentages, in the long-term, waste incineration hinders transition to a circular economy.
Greenhouse gases and health implications
Landfills contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The Australian government estimated that in 2020 waste contributed about 12.4 Mt CO2e or 2.5 per cent of national emissions. Much of this is the result of the decomposition of organic material that generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
The good news for waste incineration is that it reduces emissions from landfills and this more than offsets the emissions associated with transporting and burning the waste. The net effect of burning waste compared to putting it into landfills makes it a viable climate mitigation action, but only in the short-term.
The bad news is that in studies comparing the alternatives, including anaerobic digestion of food waste, gasification of combustible waste, recycling plastic waste, those options provide greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
In short, reducing the amount of waste produced, alternative technologies for energy recovery, or the recycling of materials, is a better option for the climate.
The other disturbing aspect of waste incineration is its impact on human health. Incineration is associated with a long list of adverse health effects, such as neoplasia, congenital anomalies, infant death and miscarriage. Even if these are associated with older plants, a precautionary approach is recommended.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that European countries are moving away from waste incineration. A study in Madrid, Spain, exploring the transition away from incineration, found that ceasing waste incineration would result in major benefits including relating to climate, acidification, marine eutrophication, photochemical ozone formation, ecotoxity and health benefits.
Nonetheless, to achieve their goal of entirely eliminating the need for landfills, increased source separation and biological treatments would not be sufficient and a small role for waste incineration could be required until alternative treatments are in place to process the rejects (that is, to deal with the remaining waste fraction after material recovery).
Incineration doesn’t support the transformation we need
It is widely agreed that to achieve net-zero emissions and to live within planetary boundaries, we need a holistic change of how we produce and consume goods and services in Australia.
We need initiatives that alter the front end of what we do – not simply removing the festering evidence of what we did. Several countries have developed aspirational blueprints for how consumption and production can be switched to circular and sustainable practices.
This involves a regulatory market, and behavioural alterations to close material loops. Waste incineration may be a barrier to achieving such large-scale transformation, lacking incentives to reducing harmful consumption and production in the first instance.
The rationale for households and businesses to consume less are left unchanged by waste incineration. Waste incineration may, perversely, provide the opposite incentive. An argument from the waste incineration industry is that it “cleans up” after polluters (www.fjernvarme.no).
We suggest, in practice waste incineration provides a “get out of jail” free card by removing pressure on land use or post-consumption CO2 emissions. Consumers and businesses go about their daily practices, reassured that someone will clean up after them.
Over time waste incineration incentivises waste production as waste becomes a highly sought-after commodity, feeding incinerators.
Local consumption and production
Waste incineration may also influence the planning and design of our cities, encouraging a business-as-usual effect on consumption patterns. To achieve more sustainable cities, many argue we need a shift to localised patterns of everyday life, by changing land use distributions, reducing the need to travel long distances in private cars.
A key plank of the Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 Metropolitan Planning Strategy is to strive for 20-minute neighbourhoods. We think that this would support more localised circuits of production, consumption and opportunities for reuse and recycling rather than the mass reticulation of both distribution and waste collection, whether for incineration or landfill.
Again, incineration reduces incentives to develop locally based closed-loop systems, encouraging localised production, consumption, and recycling with a minimum of waste, enabling 20-minute neighbourhoods to be genuinely net-zero emissions communities.
Waste incineration gives a way out for bad designs
To illustrate how waste incineration provides an escape for bad design and a barrier to our transition to a circular economy, we conducted the following experiment.
Waste systems aim to remove waste from sight. We therefore specifically designed seven see-through waste bins without lids and purposefully too small, placed in central locations in a university design building, and observed what happened.
We noticed daily lively debate and complaints about our community’s waste being unsightly as it spilled onto the ground, which served as input to educating future designers around seeing and feeling the effects of their design decisions.
We called the waste bins “bad design” and added posters explaining the contents of these bins were designated for landfill or incineration as a result of their bad design decisions. The overflowing recycling bin prompted the rapid transition to reusable water bottles and coffee mugs.
The unsightly compost bin prompted a staff roster to empty the bin into a communal compost. Frustration around which bin to put an item in prompted the addition of a “too hard basket” turning frustration into humour.
Overall, our initiative to redesign waste embedded in our future designers an urgency to stop designing for waste, which would end in a “bad design” bin destined for landfill or incineration.
Summary and solutions
Is waste incineration burning a hole in our sustainable future? Our answer is yes!
Incineration comes from a linear economic paradigm that created our waste problem in the first place. Therefore, on the surface, waste incineration seems like a climate-friendly “solution” supporting new jobs; but only when applying short-term thinking. Waste incineration is not the frontier of green innovation.
We should instead consider long-term perspectives. Reliance on waste incineration is a false friend preventing us from creating virtuous cycles of behaviour that support the sustainable futures we want, by instead cementing the very behaviours we need to change. It locks us into second-rate green innovations.
As Einstein put it, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.
To achieve ambitious visions of sustainable societies, more important than individual solutions, is to build the capacity of change agents to create positive transformations. This requires us to unlock the creativity of communities, governments and businesses. Waste incineration does the opposite, it stifles innovation.
What can be done? Firstly, we can design for circularity, and invest in new materials, such as fungi based packaging or low-carbon concrete from recycled materials.
Next, we can focus on entire industries and places like 20-minute neighbourhoods or zero waste cities and see them as ecosystems, where business, community and governments creatively work together to activate circular economy opportunities.
Finally, we can all follow the ten steps to zero waste proposed by Professor Paul Connet (to which we add step 0):
1) Source Separation
2) Door to Door Collections
5) Reuse, Repair and Community Centre
6) Waste Reduction Initiatives
7) Economic Incentives
8) Residual Separation and Research Centre
9) Industrial Responsibility
10) Temporary Landfill
Rather than burning waste, minimising the human and environmental impact of waste, is a path worth taking. Cities like Italian Capannori and over 400 other European municipalities provide inspiration and lessons learnt for how to achieve zero waste.
In summary, we should not be tempted by short-term, apparent “gains” offered by waste incineration. Instead, decision-makers should think about creative long-term solutions without perverse incentives to create waste that we can do without. Burning waste is not the answer to a sustainable future for our planet. There are more innovative solutions to addressing waste than incineration. We argue, if we think long-term and take a more creative and holistic approach to waste, we may discover cities do not need waste incineration at all.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said the state government does not outline risk such as over-investing in waste incineration… The article should have said “does outline risk”. The error occurred in the editing process.