Alternatives to Waste Incineration

Many cities and counties have long relied on incineration to dispose of solid municipal waste. Incineration converts municipal solid waste into heavy ash residue known as bottom ash, lighter, more toxic ash known as fly ash, combustion gasses, air pollutants, wastewater, sludge, and heat. The process pollutes the environment (air, soil, and water) and adversely affects human health, even with technologically advanced incinerators.

Some tout the benefits of using the heat from incinerators to generate electricity. However, compared to a coal-fired power plant, per unit of energy produced, waste incinerators release:

  • 28 times as much of the carcinogenic gas dioxin
  • 5 times as much poisonous carbon monoxide
  • 3 times as much asthma-aggravating nitrogen oxides
  • up to 14 times as much of the toxic heavy metal mercury
  • about 6 times as much lead, a toxic heavy metal that can have devastating effects on developing brains
  • 70% more toxic sulfur dioxides

Even incinerators equipped with air filtration systems can’t eliminate these toxins or the ultra-fine particulate matter that escapes into the air. They merely concentrate the toxins in heavy ash, fly ash, and wastewater treatment sludge, which end up in landfills and eventually are released into the environment.

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Incineration Does Not Eliminate Landfills

Incineration is essentially a way to treat waste before sending it to a landfill. About 25% of the weight of waste coming into an incinerator remains as residual ash (both heavy ash and fly ash) after burning and still requires disposal, which most often consigns it to a landfill. The toxins concentrated in ash and wastewater treatment sludge can leach out of landfills and into groundwater as landfill containment systems deteriorate over time.

What Are the Alternatives to Waste Incineration?

There are far more efficient ways to dispose of large amounts of waste, through the waste hierarchy—reduce, reuse, recycle, energy recovery and, finally, disposal. And it’s not only a matter of efficiency. Other disposal methods are kinder to the environment and also have the potential to create jobs and drive economic growth.

For example, composting and recycling together, both zero waste practices, can save up to five times the amount of energy produced from the heat resulting from the incineration of waste. Also consider the fact that the amount of energy wasted in this country by not recycling food and beverage cans, paper, glass, and plastic equals the generation output of 15 medium-capacity power plants.

Individual Responsibility

Incineration of municipal solid waste is governed by state and local regulations, not by individuals, and individuals have little control over laws and government policies other than in their capacity as voters. But individuals do have control over how they manage the waste produced by their own households. And burning trash in the backyard should not be an option anyone considers, even in communities that have not banned the practice. Reducing, reusing, and recycling are alternatives that are well within an individual’s ability.


Composting is key to reducing the amount of waste in the first place. Much of the municipal waste stream is food scraps, paper, plastics, and lawn waste. Food and other organic matter can be composted either in a central composting facility or by households. (Some municipalities even offer curbside residential compost pick-up and make money reselling compost by the cubic yard.) Most paper waste also can be composted. That leaves the question as to how to deal with the non-organic waste that cannot be composted.


Plastics, metals, glass, wood, and other materials can be recycled. On a commercial level, recycling converts waste materials into inputs manufacturing the same products or completely different products. In communities with mandatory recycling, household recyclables are collected and transported to the recycling facilities that can get them into the hands of the companies that can make the best use of them. The town makes some money, and recyclables are kept out of the municipal landfill.

Working with Salvage Professionals

Homeowners and business owners, especially construction contractors, often need to find another home for unwanted materials that don’t align with their town’s recycling practices but, nonetheless, should not be disposed of as trash. Just because you have no use for something doesn’t mean that others don’t. There are plenty of salvage or waste management companies that can take them off your hands, including us, and make them available to others who would benefit from not having to go out and buy them new at their full retail price. They won’t end up in an incinerator if you send them our way.

Contact RepurposedMATERIALS today to find out how we can help you find a new home for the unwanted materials.