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In a sustainable world, waste would be reduced from the outset and composted, recycled, or reused. The current reality, however, is that cities and land-scarce countries face a dilemma about what to do with their trash. Waste-to-energy is a transitional strategy for a world that wastes too much and needs to reduce its emissions.

Incineration, gasification, and pyrolysis are means of releasing the energy contained in trash. Some of the heavy metals and toxic compounds latent within it are emitted into the air, some are scrubbed out, and some remain in residual ash. With these outcomes, why bother at all? Waste-to-energy plants create energy that might otherwise be sourced from coal- or gas-fired power plants. Their impact on greenhouse gases is positive when compared to landfills that produce methane emissions as organic wastes decompose.

At Project Drawdown, we consider waste-to-energy a regrets solution. It has a positive impact on emissions, but social and environmental costs are harmful and high. It can help move us away from fossil fuels in the near-term, but is not part of a clean energy future. Even when incineration facilities are state-of-the-art (and many are not), they are not truly clean and toxin-free.


methane [vs.] carbon dioxide: Myhre, Gunnar, Drew Shindell, François-Marie Bréon, William Collins, Jan Fuglestvedt, Jianping Huang, Dorothy Koch et al. “Anthropogenic and natural radiative forcing.” In Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

United States burns…waste: EPA. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management:

2014 Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016.

1980s…New Jersey incinerator: Hawken, Paul. The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. New York: Harper Business, 2010. 

Europe…waste-to-energy plants: CEWEP. Waste-to-Energy Plants in Europe 2014. Düsseldorf: Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants; Seltenrich, Nate. “Incineration Versus Recycling: In Europe, A Debate Over Trash.” Yale Environment 360. August 28, 2013.

Sweden…importing…garbage: Braw, Elisabeth. “Dirty Power: Sweden Wants Your Garbage for Energy.” Al Jazeera. March 27, 2015.

1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide [equivalent]: Braw, “Dirty Power.”

Europe…rate of recycling: Collins, Sarah. “EU Struggling with Household Recycling Targets.” Euranet Plus News Agency. January 27, 2017.

[electricity from] waste [vs.] coal: Themelis, Nickolas J. “Does Burning Garbage for Electricity Make Sense?” Wall Street Journal. November 15, 2015.

Scotgen gasification incinerator: “Pioneering Waste Plant Faces Legal Action After Pollution Leaks and an Explosion.” The Herald. January 19, 2013.

Rossano Ercolini…Zero Waste: Kinver, Mark. “Italy Waste Campaigner Wins 2013 Goldman Prize.” BBC News. April 15, 2013.

view all book references


p. 28

Correction: Sweden is among the leaders.

Correction: In Europe [...] a 50 percent recycling directive is in place for the year 2020.

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