Many topics in the environmental and sustainability space can be polarizing, and incineration is one of the clearest examples. 

On the industry side, experts say it’s an underused technology with great potential, but environmental advocates claim it’s nothing but harmful to air quality, the landscape, and nearby communities. 

Compared to other topics in the sustainability realm, incineration rarely makes headlines in Canada, and that’s likely because it’s not widely used here. Less than 10% of our municipal waste ends up incinerated – far below other G7 nations, some of which incinerate more than half of their waste. Sweden even imports garbage from other nations to incinerate, and uses the energy to heat homes and power electricity needs.

Globally, incineration has been debated recently after a group of UK-based advocates called for an end and eventual ban on incineration in their country. With nearly half of all waste incinerated there, they claim it’s harming air quality far beyond what industry states, and that low income and ethnically diverse neighbourhoods are disproportionately feeling the impacts. 

Here in Canada, the Toronto Environmental Alliance has taken a strong position against incineration, arguing that the purported benefits about its use for energy are flawed, in that it doesn’t address the problem of reducing overall waste. The Alliance says that waste sent for incineration shouldn’t be generated in the first place, and that it should be composted, recycled, or reused anyway.

It’s true that compared to its G7 counterparts, Canada has relatively poor performance for waste diversion, recycling, and compost; we rely heavily on landfill, which is harmful to the environment in its own ways.

But is there a chance that incineration – even temporarily – can help us along the way to better diversion rates? A major factor to consider is that energy from incineration can be used elsewhere, and it is claimed that with modern technologies, we can better track and reduce its pollution or harmful effects. 

Still, environmental advocates make the important point that, like most methods, incineration has drawbacks that can’t be ignored. While generating energy from waste involves burning materials that have a high energy content, such as dried organics and plastics, it is worth noting that these are actually materials that can and should be composted or recycled instead.

Amidst the debate, what’s clear is that incineration isn’t a perfect technology; even those who advocate for it point out that the emissions can still cause harm, though outcomes can be better than landfill or other forms of disposal. Regardless, there’s a good chance incineration may continue to expand, given the European Union’s recent directives for reducing and eventually eliminating landfill use. 

Going forward, it’s a matter of clearing the air, literally and figuratively – so those on all sides can get a clearer picture of the right role for incineration.