Move towards zero waste, incineration not the answer

incineratorThe Malaysian government is heading the wrong way in managing municipal solid waste.  It is reported that the government has plans to build more incinerators in the country. The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) opposes incineration and other end-of-pipe interventions.
The public bears the financial burden of all types of incineration or landfilling. Costs to local governments will escalate, and communities would end up paying with tax money and public health costs. Alternatively, waste minimization, recycling and composting make more sense economically than either incineration or landfilling. Incineration falsely appears to offer a quick-fix solution to near-capacity landfills.  Incinerators do not magically make municipal waste disappear. They emit, among other gases, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, carbon dioxide and furans.  Even small amounts of some of the toxic gases emitted from incinerators can be harmful to human health and the environment.
Mercury, for example, is a powerful and widespread neurotoxin that impairs motor, sensory and cognitive functions. Dioxin is the most potent carcinogen known to humankind—to which there is no known safe level of exposure.

Particularly at high risk of exposure to dioxin and other contaminants are workers at incinerators and people living near incinerators, but the toxic impacts of incineration are far reaching: persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dioxins and furans travel thousands of kilometres and accumulate in animals and humans. Contaminants are also distributed when food produced near incinerators is shipped to other communities.

Our authorities argue that new incineration technology and design will address the problem of gaseous emissions. However, in all incineration technologies, air pollution control devices are mainly devices that capture and concentrate the toxic pollutants; they don’t eliminate them. By capturing and concentrating the pollutants, pollutants are transferred to other environmental media such as fly ash, char, slag, and waste water. Incinerators still need to be supplemented by landfills. The ash residue that is sent to landfills for disposal, have the potential to leach into groundwater, spreading its hazards.

The authorities also state that recyclables will be recovered before waste is incinerated or dumped. The small percentage of materials left over after maximum recycling, reuse and composting—called “residuals”— are often toxic, complex and have low energy value. Incineration is not an appropriate strategy to deal with this portion of the waste stream. Doing so creates harmful emissions and undermines efforts to minimise waste.

A more practical approach is to cost-effectively and safely contain the small unrecyclable percentage of the waste, study it, and implement extended producer responsibility and other regulations and incentives so that these products and materials are phased out of production and replaced with sustainable practices.

A variety of systems for diverting materials from disposal have been implemented worldwide. The core of most of these programmes is door-to-door or curbside collection of segregated materials for recycling. A high percentage of our household waste is organics. Thus, composting plays a vital role. The simplest and least expensive composting system of organic materials is to do it at home. Another option is to compost on a neighborhood scale.

The government should educate the public on source separation and moving towards zero waste. Zero Waste means establishing a goal and a plan to invest in the infrastructure, workforce, and local strategies needed to eliminate our dependence on incinerators and landfills.

Cities around the world, including Buenos Aires, Argentina; Canberra, Australia; Oakland, U.S.; Nova Scotia, Canada; Kovalam, India and others, have already made great progress towards achieving Zero Waste. These cities are building recycling and composting parks, implementing innovative collection systems, requiring products to be made in ways that are safe, and creating locally-based jobs.

A range of policies, such as Extended Producer Responsibility, Clean Production, packaging taxes, and material-specific bans (such as plastic bags, styrofoam, PCBs, etc.) have proven effective at reducing and eliminating problematic materials.

We urge the Malaysian government to stop building more incinerators.  The key to healthy communities and the environment is to redirect the millions of ringgits in investments for incineration and landfill systems into waste prevention and reduction and zero waste systems.

Letter to the Editor, 3 November 2010