Incinerators and landfills are the two methods most commonly used to dispose of solid waste materials in the United States today, each one having its own advantages and disadvantages when compared to the other. Incinerators are currently gaining popularity over landfills, but many people have concerns over their safety and function that have prevented widespread acceptance of these facilities.
Let’s take a look at both incinerators and landfills in more detail to help us determine which one is best for the environment and public health today and in the future.
A landfill is a place where we deposit solid waste. Solid waste is defined as any type of garbage that does not dissolve in water. This includes things like food scraps, paper products, and plastic bottles. After being placed in landfills for years, these materials begin to decompose into a sludge-like substance called leachate.
Leachate can seep through underground water supplies to contaminate our water supply with toxic substances such as ammonia and methane gas. Incineration: An incinerator is a machine that burns trash in order to destroy its contents or convert them into ash or other forms of non-hazardous residue. They are most commonly used by large cities with overflowing landfills to dispose of their excess garbage.
Although they are an effective way to reduce solid waste, incinerators also pose many health risks due to toxic emissions from burning plastics and household chemicals. Waste-to-energy plants: Waste-to-energy plants use huge furnaces in order to burn all of their incoming waste at extremely high temperatures.
Because of how hot these furnaces run, up to 80% of all incoming solid matter will be converted into energy while just 20% is turned into ash. These fumes can contain cancer-causing toxins including cadmium and dioxins, which have been linked with cancer clusters near power plants throughout history.
Although very efficient in terms of keeping landfills clean, they still release plenty of harmful emissions into surrounding communities. What if there was a better way to do it? How about what if there was a sanitary landfill method of waste disposal?
Sanitary landfills would encourage rapid degradation of solid wastes over time, making less space available for new wastes. Using these bioactive systems could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions without negatively impacting air quality or threatening drinking water sources. Watch to learn more!
Comparing landfills with incinerators
At face value, incinerators and landfills are vastly different methods of waste disposal. Incineration generates energy in addition to destroying waste, while landfills do neither; that alone makes it easy to assume that incineration is a more efficient way to dispose of trash. But if you dig a little deeper into both processes, you’ll find that they aren’t as far apart as they may seem.
In fact, many European countries have begun combining these two approaches into one convenient location—something called a sanitary landfill. Comparatively, an incinerator can generate approximately 2 megawatts per hour of electricity with some waste-to-energy systems able to produce up to 3 megawatts per hour. This means that 4,000 tons of garbage burned in an incinerator could generate enough power for over 1,400 homes!
Additionally, there’s no need for people or vehicles to enter or exit an operational plant once it has been built; all materials go straight from their source (garbage truck) through conveyors into processing equipment where everything but gas and ash are recycled back into manufacturing products such as aluminum cans. Then, it’s just a matter of using existing utility lines to carry electricity away from your facility.
Of course, incinerating your trash isn’t without drawbacks: odors and potentially negative environmental impacts come to mind immediately. That said, modern incineration facilities can be designed to release virtually zero odor thanks to highly specialized scrubbers which filter smoke before emitting anything outside of their pipes. And because there are so few moving parts, most experts say that air quality inside an incinerator doesn’t differ much from outdoor air quality at its worst. Still not sold on incineration?
Consider finally creating trash by taking a look at how our material-based economy leads to widespread pollution problems. If that doesn’t convince you, check out another common waste disposal method known as recycling!
This technique is also capable of producing plenty of heat in order to run industries and/or create steam used for other purposes. Recycling involves melting down recyclable materials like metal cans into bars then forming those bars into new items like cars or appliances.
What we know about landfills
they’re overflowing with waste and they produce methane gas. We also know about incinerators: even though they burn trash at temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius), they still emit lots of noxious gases into the atmosphere—including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and mercury.
Our modern dilemma is how to deal with both solid waste—the result of our increasing appetite for throwaway items like paper cups and water bottles—and hazardous material like pesticides. Enter pulverized-fuel ash (PFA). While PFA has been around since 1991, it’s only in recent years that experts have realized its potential for helping to resolve landfills’ problems.
So what exactly is PFA? It’s actually a byproduct of pulverized coal-burning facilities. When coal burns, heat creates a chemical reaction that generates a combination of fly ash and bottom ash that are removed from power plants before being used to create electricity. About half of all coal consumed in power plants becomes PFA each year, so there’s an abundant supply ready to be marketed as an alternative solution to conventional solid-waste disposal or highly inefficient incineration methods.
So far, not many governments have adopted this new method; Singapore’s SembCorp Group took home an award last year for designing and building Asia’s first commercial plant using PFAs called CZero Energy Waste Management Plant.
Technical barriers to new methods
Incineration has been around since at least as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. While incineration is a simple concept—burn trash to destroy it—there are some technical barriers that must be overcome for efficient incineration to be possible.
First, many environmental regulations have yet to be established for different types of waste; currently, most large-scale waste disposal is performed in sanitary landfills. Secondly, incinerator facilities tend to use more energy than sanitary landfills (although efforts are being made to reduce such inefficiencies).
Finally, public perception is largely negative regarding incineration; in fact, most people don’t realize that much of our everyday trash ends up buried beneath cement. So why not just build an incinerator? Because of the waste stream: Sanitary landfills handle all manner of solid wastes.
Recyclables can be separated out but still end up placed into an underground landfill site with minimal issue. Organic materials decompose quickly even in the absence of oxygen and contaminate groundwater little; metals rust into harmless minerals which settle to form new soil layers over time; only residual chemicals pose a problem, and they’re isolated from groundwater by thousands of feet or more of impermeable rock.
Disposing of liquid garbage poses its own challenges, but ultimately wastewater treatment plants turn liquid waste into purified water that’s discharged back into water bodies where it can naturally biodegrade. As long as solid and liquid garbage stays sequestered underground in sanitary landfills, these sites present no threat to humans.
In contrast, everything that enters an incinerator becomes airborne ash capable of causing health problems for years to come if inhaled. Further, ash from improper incineration will leach heavy metals and other chemicals into underlying groundwater wells if trapped inside porous rocks for extended periods of time. It seems clear, then, that incineration poses too great a risk for human health compared to traditional sanitary landfills. But could we design safe incinerator systems?
There are two main categories of combustion technologies used by modern municipalities today: mass burn and refuse derived fuel (RDF) systems. Mass burn systems employ furnaces similar to those found in power stations. Waste is loaded into a chamber through doors located below ground level so that it doesn’t become airborne during operation; open fires create sufficient heat for the complete combustion of solid waste (typically 1800 degrees Fahrenheit).
Ash settles below ground in containers whereas gas burns off via chimney stack attached to upper portions of facility buildings. RDF systems resemble cement kilns. They may be fueled by natural gas, oil, coal, or any combination thereof and fed waste in a similar fashion to mass-burn units.
These are typically preferred because of their high thermal efficiency; while they produce less carbon dioxide per ton of processed trash compared to conventional incineration methods, that’s partly because RDF systems also allow for separation of recyclables and organic materials before processing (in mass burn units, both are burned together in a single chamber) in addition to recycling process steam produced by burning solid waste.
Effectively RDF systems require fewer resources to operate (both in terms of money and emitted CO2 emissions). This could help alleviate concerns about dangerous climate change resulting from industrialization.
Safety concerns and long-term effects on health
One thing that concerns a lot of people about incineration is its effect on public health. Incineration releases contaminants into the air and water during every stage. If not carefully managed, these contaminants can have an adverse effect on human health.
There are a number of combustion byproducts you may be interested in knowing more about, including dioxins, heavy metals (e.g., mercury), small particulate matter (e.g., soot), and reduced sulfur compounds(e.g., hydrogen sulfide).
Although there are many processes designed to control or eliminate contaminants as byproducts before they escape into open-air or waterways around landfills or incinerators. Unfortunately, none of them can completely remove all pollutants. And depending on how closely companies follow protocols for waste disposal, industrial plants could end up polluting surrounding communities with toxins like lead, arsenic, and dioxin.
This environmental injustice can make it hard for low-income neighborhoods to attract new residents or businesses or receive financial assistance from local governments due to redlining by banks and insurance companies afraid of being exposed. Unfortunately, poor communities bear a much greater risk of exposure to toxic chemicals released through inadequate management at waste disposal sites.
This is because lower-income individuals tend to live closer to facilities that handle hazardous materials than their affluent counterparts; think about your own neighborhood for example. Asking if we’re better off with or without incineration doesn’t do justice when it comes to comparing two such different methods of waste disposal.
What’s clear, however, is even if one method appears safer and more efficient than another on paper, things aren’t always what they seem once policies are put into place which allow pollution to occur behind closed doors and out of sight.
At EnviroScience Consultants, our mission is simple: We help manufacturing companies identify ways to improve operational efficiency while reducing costs at their commercial facilities by using state-of-the-art technology.
So what’s the problem?
For example, incineration is a common method used in modern waste disposal. One problem with incineration is that it can create harmful dioxins as a byproduct. If these aren’t filtered out during processing or if they escape into the atmosphere while being burned, they can be quite dangerous to public health.
Furthermore, incinerators require large amounts of energy to operate which also makes them an environmental threat to both plants and animals alike. A more sanitary alternative is called landfill dumping. It’s much cheaper than incineration but also poses its own dangers to human health. So why not use both methods together?
That’s right, you read correctly! Incinerating your trash leaves behind mostly ash whereas landfilling throws out everything else (plastic cups, random paper receipts, and so on). This way you avoid creating toxic pollution altogether; however, there are still issues with handling potentially toxic materials like batteries which should always be disposed of properly.
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