An ongoing debate that has spanned many decades within the environmental community is that involving garbage. More specifically, it revolves around what should be done with garbage, as it is an on-going, never ending, problem we face as a society. Traditionally, all garbage went into the landfill, and still does, for the majority of communities. However, more recently (in the last 100 years or so), a new way of solving the garbage problem has come around – waste-to-energy incineration. However, what are the differences and benefits to each waste disposal method? This blog aims to compare both methods and show the benefits and disadvantages of each. Although it may be redundant, I want to start off and tell you exactly what a landfill is and what makes waste-to-energy incineration different.
Essentially, a landfill is a large hole in the ground, and by large, I mean 600 acres large, that is open and available for garbage to be packed into it. All garbage is placed directly onto the soil ground (sometimes with a membrane) and compacted into the hole for as long as the area allows it. Once it has reached capacity, as it eventually, undoubtedly will, the waste is then buried and another large hole is dug. Landfilling waste is the oldest and most common waste disposal method, but certainly not the most sustainable.
Waste-to-energy incineration is the process of energy recovery through generation of heat or electricity from waste, through none-other than incineration. Incineration of landfill waste is the process of the combustion of said waste through burning all garbage, which then utilizes the heat from the burn to boil water which powers steam generators which then generate electricity and/or heat to power homes, businesses and industries. In addition to being able to generate electricity and/or heat, waste-to-energy incineration is also able to reduce the volume of the original waste by up to 95% (depending on the composition of the original waste).
All You Need To Know About Landfills
Landfills are the oldest and most common waste disposal methods for a reason, they hide away waste in an efficient, low-cost manner, while also confining waste to a singular location. These large, 600 acre holes in the ground have a life expectancy of 30-50 years (depending on population and volume, naturally), but eventually will always close because they will always have a natural capacity limit. With that said, the waste is compacted as much as possible to fit in as much as possible.
With that said, there are some issues with landfills that have both some obvious social and environmental impacts. These include:
- They smell
Many people that live around landfills will admit to you that although some days are worse than others (summer would be the worst), the landfill smells. It smells all around them and certainly impacts the pleasure of opening your windows on a breezy day.
A relatively unknown impact of landfilling waste is leachate. Leachate is the result of rainwater falling into an open landfill, in which then the water trickles down all of the landfill contents, creating leachate (a contaminated water substance). If the landfill is not contained by a membrane of sorts, leachate can contaminate groundwater and soil. However, most modern landfills have installed thick impermeable liners (and are generally geographically positioned to be less impactful if there is a leak) that alleviate this issue.
3. Greenhouse Gas Emissions
When food waste is not diverted from the landfill, it then sits in the landfill and decomposes. Many might think this method is fine because “at least it decomposes” but as the food waste goes through its cycle of decomposition it emits carbon dioxide and methane gas, which directly gets released into the environment, which contributes to global warming.
4. Habitat Loss/Land Use
Obviously 600 acres is a large amount of land. Any excessive land use displaces wildlife and contributes to habitat loss. The issue with landfills is that once the original 600 acres gets used up, another 600 acres needs to be dug/installed. Garbage and waste never ends.
All You Need to Know About Waste-to-Energy Incineration
Waste-to-Energy incineration takes up a large amount of land space, however, it does take up significantly less than a landfill would. Incineration plants are useful in urbanized areas for this reason, as land use is more limited in those areas and they take up less valuable land. Although waste generated from the waste-to-energy incineration does need to be landfilled, its volume is significantly decreased. During this process, 2000lbs of waste can be reduced to nearly 500-600lbs of ash – less weight and less space – all while creating energy.
Although there are some significant benefits of Waste-to-Energy Incineration, there are some issues with them as well, these include:
Although worse greenhouse gas emissions (specifically methane) are emitted through the landfilling process through the disposal of undiverted food waste, there are still associated emissions with burning garbage waste. This is mostly due to the burning of plastic that has not been properly diverted. Through this burning process, more carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere then burning coal (per unit of electricity), which is worrisome from an environmental standpoint.
2. Burning of Valuable Resources
Some critics argue that burning waste reduces people’s interest in properly diverting said waste. However, this should not be the case. It should be the same level of care and diversion as regular landfills. If these sites were only incinerating strictly garbage, the carbon dioxide emissions would be less significant and the process more efficient.
Although both methods of disposal have their benefits and disadvantages, there seems to be more disadvantages to directly landfilling waste then compared to waste-to-energy incineration. Landfills do not provide any benefit to the environment, and only impact it negatively. Even though waste-to-energy incineration does have contents that end up in the landfill, the volume is significantly less, and it has aided in the generation of electricity and/or heat, which is an energy recovery method.
We do wish that there were more waste-to-energy incineration plants around here in Ontario because it may just be the next step to solving the waste and landfill crisis we face in the province. Waste will never stop, so we need to come up with innovative solutions to deal with it effectively.