Incineration vs Landfill - Which Is Better?
Jul 21 2021
When it comes to disposing of the masses of waste which are generated across the globe but cannot be recycled, there are two main options open to policymakers: incineration and landfill. The former involves combusting the non-recyclable material and turning it into ash, heat and flue gas, while the latter simply deposits the waste into a dump or tip to decompose over time.
Of course, reducing, reusing and recycling are ideal methods of cutting waste generation, but there will always be some waste which must be dealt with. Both of the above strategies of doing so are commonplace throughout the world, though some countries favour one over the other due to their specific circumstances. But is one better than its alternative? Here’s a quick rundown of the case for each method of waste disposal.
The case for incineration
There are a number of reasons why incinerating waste is preferred by many nations around the world, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Energy. Some countries, such as those in Scandinavia, have poured significant resources into determining the value of waste materials as fuel feedstock. Sweden, for instance, gains as much as 8% of its total heating energy from combusted waste.
- Efficiency. Because incineration can reduce the amount of waste which must be diverted to landfill by as much as 95%, it’s an efficient method of dealing with the issue. It also eliminates the need to transport the waste to other locations (or countries!), thus cutting down on the emissions involved in that stage of the process.
- Space. In smaller countries where space is at a premium, there is simply no room to store waste in landfills. Incineration can solve the problem in these scenarios, as it does in the diminutive but populous island nation of Japan, for example.
- Methane. When waste is left to decay in landfills, it can produce plentiful amounts of methane. This is undesirable due to the global concerns over methane as a greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change.
The case for landfills
Having said that, incineration of waste is not a perfect strategy and there are certainly reasons why landfills are more appropriate on occasion. These include:
- Affordability. Incinerating waste requires costly infrastructure and highly trained staff to operate it, entailing significant financial outlay. Landfills are, by contrast, far more affordable, since they do not require complex equipment or procedures.
- Convenience. The lack of expensive infrastructure and technical nous involved in dumping waste in landfills means that they are a convenient solution for developing countries where the technology and funding is not in place to pursue incineration.
- Emissions. When waste is incinerated, a by-product of the process is the flue gas that is emitted into the atmosphere. Containing such contaminants as particulate matter, heavy metals and nitrogen oxides, these gases can be detrimental to the environment. While landfills do also produce ambient air pollution, it is not as concerning as that generated by incineration plants.
- Public health. Not only are those emissions bad for the planet, but they’re also potentially life-threatening to the people exposed to them over a long period. Increased rates of cancer diagnoses, reproductive complications and respiratory difficulties are all found in higher numbers near incineration plants. Landfills are, by comparison, less damaging.
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