The case against incinerating rubbish and a proposed zerowaste alternative involving composting on an industrial scale – damn good stuff. Copied from

Nanoparticles from incinerators or gasifiers or gasifying incinerators use household waste as a fuel which due to its make up has the potential to contain every toxic element used in commerce – which means that it has the potential to emit nanoparticles containing those toxic elements. Diesel fuel contains far less of an array of toxic elements therefore comparisions of nanoparticle emissions from traffic with high temperature incineration or gasification is like comparing chalk and cheese.
Incineration and gasification does not destroy toxic elements- toxic elements in – toxic elements out. Gasification companies make inflated claims about what they are going to do with their products, but the char, or glassified melt, and the fly ash by-products, all contain toxic materials which are permanent in the case of metals and highly persistent in the case of dioxins and furans.
About 4 X more energy is saved reusing, recycling and composting the waste stream than burning them to create electricity so this proposal should not be considered a sustainable waste treatment process.
These proposals will directly impact on recycling and remove the drive to zero waste.
The key to sustainability (see my essay Zero Waste a key Stepping Stone to Sustainability) is Zero Waste. Everybody makes waste and as long as we do we are part of a non-sustainable way of living on this planet. But given good leadership everyone could be involved with the critical first step towards sustai
nability: source separation.

With source separation we can get out the organics clean enough to get them back to the soil, and recyclables which can be returned to industry – cutting out the huge energy demands of extraction and transport of raw materials, often half way around the planet. With the reuse of whole objects, we can create many jobs and small businesses, stimulate vital community development, and save even more energy by avoiding manufacture as well as extraction. But the single most important thing we can do is composting: composting sequesters carbon, if this material is burned it the Carbon is immediately converted into carbon
dioxide (global warming). Also by removing organics at source it makes it very much easier for cities to deal with the remainder of the materials – glass, metals, paper, cardboard, plastics, ceramic etc.
Burning ( or destroying) materials to recover energy is always second best. the number one priority is to recover materials and thereby conserve the embedded energy discussed above.
24 years ago promoters of incinerators tried to corral this issue between landfills and incinerators. you either burned it or you buried it. They scoffed at those like myself who argued that comparable reductions to incineration could be achieved by a combination of recycling and composting. But we have won that battle there are many small and large towns who are getting over 70% reduction with composting and recycling – incinerator only gets 75% reduction – you are still left with 25% as ash. You don’t get rid of landfills with incineration or gasifying incinerators. Note right mow San Francisco is getting 73% reduction without incineration, at a fraction of the cost of an incinerator and with many more jobs created.
Many of the proposals for gasification plants are coming from companies which have never operated such plants. There is a world of difference from small scale pilot plants and a fully-fledged commercial operation. here are very few
of these operations burning municipal solid waste. no one should entertain for a moment such a company coming to town unless they can establish some kind of solid track record – somewhere! A track record which can demonstrate what there emissions are and what they are doing with the byproducts. At the very least they should be required to a give a very careful written and documented response to Dr. Vyvyan Howard’s paper on nanoparticles, health and incineration. Right now they can promise anything because there are NO regulations for nanoparticles from incinerators or gasifying incinerators.
Highly exaggerated claims are being made with NO DATA to support them. When these
companies promise the earth it is probably because
they never expect these plants to run for more than a few years. The name of the game as far as I can see it is that they set themselves up as a “green & sustainable” entity promising to produce “green energy” and “fight global warming” a) to seduce local decision makers and b) to suck up any soft European money for green alternatives as well as PFI – once this is in the bank watch out for
them selling out the contract to some other company and/or go belly up with the principals walking away with a lot of the cash in their pockets.
Of course, they will argue that they agree with us that recycling and composting are important, but all they want are the residuals. But the residuals are the evidence of bad industrial design – so rather than destroy them we have to say if we can’t reuse, recycle or compost anything you shouldn’t be making it. This is how we can go from the current 70-80% diversion rates up to about 95% diversion over the next 10 years or so. this is the future.
Incineration simply burns the evidence that we are doing something wrong – and will delay by 25 years the crucial move towards sustainability. The Zero waste approach makes more sense on every front: economically, environmentally, and globally.
Paul Connett
Dec 9, 2009


About Dr Paul Connett

Dr Connett is a graduate of Cambridge University and holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from Dartmouth College. From 1983 he taught chemistry at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY where he specialised in Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology before retiring in May 2006. Over the past 24 years his research on waste management has taken him to 49 states in the US and 52 other countries, where he has given over 2000 pro bono public presentations. Ralph Nader said of Paul Connett, “He is the only person I know who can make waste interesting.”

A recent essay on “Zero Waste for Sustainability” which was published as a chapter in a book in Italy in 2009 (Rifiuto: Riduco e Riciclo per vivere meglio, Monanari, S. (ed)), along with several videotapes Paul has made on Zero Waste, can be accessed at This site is hosted by the group AESHP (American Environmental Health Studies Project) which Paul directs.

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