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Why Incineration Isn’t The Sustainable Way Forward?

Like many Western countries, Singapore too was used to sending a huge proportion of its recyclable plastic overseas - most of it making its way to China. However, as China shut its door on us and no longer wished to import “foreign garbage”, it has created problems within the global recycling industry, for Singapore as well.

That’s more waste in our country – be it recyclables or non-recyclables. To tackle this problem, the majority of our waste is incinerated. Singapore disposes of much of its waste through waste-to-energy initiatives - of the whopping 7.23 million tonnes of solid waste generated in 2019, more than 40% was incinerated. Besides the limited landfill problem which we are struggling with, incineration is not the sustainable solution forward. Here are 5 why’s.

1) Burning waste is wasteful.

A sizeable amount of materials that end up in incineration plants and landfills (which we label as thrash) could be recycled or composted. Burning these valuable materials to generate electricity discourages efforts to preserve resources and creates incentives to generate more waste. Waste-to-energy only accounts for 3% of Singapore’s electricity needs. It is typical for countries that encourage waste burning to have low recycling rates as a result. Clearly, a mere 13% domestic recycling rate in Singapore in 2020.

2) Waste incineration is not a source of renewable energy.

Incinerator companies are often marketing “waste-to-energy” as a source of renewable energy. But unlike the traditional renewable energy that we are familiar with, waste does not come from infinite natural processes but finite resources instead. These finite resources such as minerals, fossil fuels and forests are cut down at an unsustainable rate. Subsidies used to fund incineration could be better invested in other initiatives to support other forms of practices such as recycling and composting.

3) Burning waste produces toxic emissions.

Burning waste is hazardous for our health and the environment. Even the most advanced technologies cannot avoid the release of pollutants. They contaminate our environment – the air, soil and water. Being a part of the environment, these contaminants make their way towards our human bodies, be it through our drinking water or food supplies. These pollutants pose a risk to our health as well. Being major emitters of carcinogenic pollutants as well tiny particles of dust, incineration can lead to health effects such as decreased lung function, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and possibly premature death.

4) Burning waste contributes to climate change.

Burning waste is far from climate neutral. In fact, incinerators actually emit more CO₂ than other sources of power, be it coal-fired, natural-gas-fired or even oil-fired power plants. Beyond Singapore’s borders, Denmark, the poster child of Europe’s incineration industry, recently discovered that its incinerators were releasing twice the amount of CO₂ than originally estimated. Consequently, this resulted in the country missing its Kyoto Protocol greenhouse reduction targets. With the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases contributing towards climate change, incineration ought to be reconsidered.

5) Waste incineration doesn’t fit into the sustainable circular economy model.

Burning waste is incompatible with a closed-loop circular economy model as incinerators destroy valuable materials in a polluting manner. By reducing the volume but increasing the toxicity of waste, incineration merely transforms one waste stream into another. Unlike the circular economy model that is committed to closing to waste loop, the resource loop remains open as we continue to extract precious raw materials, only for them to be burned.

Going forward?

Embrace zero waste instead. Instead of incineration, countries are embracing zero waste instead. “Waste-to-energy” is often described as a good way to extract energy from resources, but in fact it works against the circular economy, producing toxic waste, air pollution and contributing to climate change – all without delivering what it promised. In contrast, a zero-waste economy is what we ought to work towards.