Trevis Rothwell's weblog

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Curbside Incineration-safe Garbage Collection?

10 January 2015

Today’s New York Times has an article about new and forthcoming garbage incineration plants, which aim to reduce the amount of garbage simply dumped into ever-accumulating landfills. While toxic emissions from garbage incineration have been reduced with modern technology, there are still concerns from area residents that the air will be filled with enough incinerated garbage fumes to pose a hazard, or at least an undesirable odor.

Living as I do about a five minute drive from our local county landfill, I have driven over numerous car-loads of home remodeling waste and various other containers of garbage beyond our regular weekly curbside pickup. I’ve often wondered how much longer we can keep tossing junk into piles on the ground like this, and the idea of using incinerators does seem to have a certain appeal. Per the laws of physics, the matter of the garbage would not cease to exist, but would be transformed into a combination of ash and gas, the former of which should be much more compact to set aside, and the latter of which being, apparently, the main problem.

What are the toxins released through burning garbage? The heavy hitters seem to be dioxins, mercury, and lead. Perusing some online environmental leaflets, it appears typical to hand-wave about the exact source of these toxins, simply attributing them to coming from “garbage”, with one of the sources implying that the mercury comes from fish. Fishmongers aside, harmful amounts of mercury emanating from household disposal of fish seems hard to believe. Wikipedia comes through for us with some better details, suggesting that gaseous dioxins and lead are the result of hazardous chemical waste in the burnt garbage, while the mercury comes mainly from discarded batteries.

Armed with that knowledge, is there anything useful we as citizens and our municipal governments can do to improve the garbage incineration scene? Here locally, we already separate our recycling materials into one group of glass, and another group of cardboard/paper/plastic. Yard waste is collected separately, and broken down into compost. Curbside, everything else is just deemed “garbage”, though if you take your garbage to the landfill personally, you have opportunity to separate things out more finely, including areas for wood and metal scrap.

Why not then designate some forms of garbage as safe for incineration? Just like how residents use a curbside recycling container for cardboard/paper/plastic, into which glass or other sundry garbage shall not go, establish a mechanism for separating out incineration-safe garbage, into which batteries, hazardous chemicals, and fish shall not go. The vast majority of my non-recycled garbage does not fall into any of those categories, and I suspect the same is true for many people.

This wouldn’t answer the question of what to do with the garbage unsafe to burn, but would this not put a decent dent into the quantity of waste dumped into the landfills? Or am I grossly underestimating the amount of waste that is unfit to burn?