What the Waste and Fossil Fuel Industries Won’t Tell You About Burning Trash

Pile of trash on fire and smoking in the foreground. Cityscape in the background.
Burning any kind of trash poisons our health, damages our climate, and endangers our environment. Photo Credit: DeawSS via Shutterstock

If nothing else, read this…

Burning trash is an expensive scam. For decades, incineration companies have charged excessive fees to burn mixed household and commercial waste – draining public money intended to support clean energy. And now, fossil fuel giants want to use pricey trash-burning gimmicks to justify huge increases in plastic production. These companies claim they use technology that generates “renewable energy,” or reuses plastic in “innovative” ways. But that’s not the truth. These companies are just burning trash. And burning trash of any kind – using any type of technology – is toxic, climate-damaging, and unjust.

Burning Trash, and Lying About It, Is Big Business

Companies that incinerate household and commercial trash won’t ever admit that they burn trash. Instead, they claim they’re engaged in “renewable waste-to-energy,” or that they “power communities with renewable energy.” Plastic-burning corporations take this one step further, saying they “create innovative approaches to renewing plastics” through deceptively named technology like “advanced recycling.” Make no mistake: these companies are all burning trash.

If burning garbage sounds problematic, that’s because it is. So, these companies avoid the word “burn” at all costs. If they won’t admit to what they do, then they’re not going to tell you about the harmful impacts of burning rubbish. Because the truth is bad for business.

Worst of all, trash-burning companies don’t mention the legacy of injustice and environmental racism that comes with burning trash. Rather, their paid lobbyists speak vaguely about how these companies “invest in communities” and “stand with their neighbors.”

But if they won’t tell the truth, Just Zero will. Here’s what you need to know:

Burning any kind of trash poisons our health, damages our climate, and endangers our environment. And communities of color and low-income communities are far more likely to suffer these toxic impacts than whiter and wealthier neighborhoods.

Posing as “Waste-to-Energy”

About 70 active incinerators in the U.S. burn a mix of household waste, industrial waste, and other unsorted garbage. Most of these facilities were built in the 1980s, when increased waste production (especially single-use plastics), landfill closures, and government support drove massive investments in trash burners.

In the decades since, trash-burning companies have spun ever-evolving lies about their incinerators, including that they will:

  1. Eliminate landfills (they won’t);
  2. Generate clean, renewable energy (quite the opposite); and,
  3. Put money into local, community-based waste “solutions” (wrong, insulting, and racist).

The Truth About Waste-to-Energy Plants

Here’s what the waste industry isn’t telling you about trash burners that supposedly generate renewable energy:

Incinerators don’t get rid of landfills. After an incinerator burns trash, what’s left is toxic ash (about 1 ton of ash for every 4 tons of trash burned). This ash is then buried in landfills that leak vile garbage brew containing toxics like heavy metals and forever chemicals into our drinking water, rivers, and lakes.

Incinerators don’t generate renewable energy. Burning trash is the dirtiest way to generate electricity. In making the same amount of energy as a coal power plant, an incinerator produces significantly more climate-damaging carbon dioxide, cancer-causing toxics, dangerous lung-irritants, and toxic heavy metals.

Incinerators perpetuate environmental injustice and racism. Trash burners are far from the good neighbors they pretend to be. Most U.S. incinerators have been deliberately forced on communities of color and low-income communities. More often than not, these facilities take in trash from whiter, wealthier neighborhoods and pour toxic pollutants into communities already disproportionately impacted by industrial pollution.

The Fossil Fuel Industry – Working to Keep Trash Burning Alive

The good news? Old-school trash incinerators are on their way out; over the last two decades, more than 40 have closed across the U.S. The bad news? The fossil-fuel and plastics industries are pushing to replace them with a new wave of waste-burning facilities. But what they’re really doing is taking old, failed high-heat technologies, like gasification and pyrolysis, rebranding it as “advanced recycling” or “chemical recycling,” and forcing it on unsuspecting and often marginalized communities.

To make this new wave of burners a reality, plastic giants, along with their lobbyists, follow a similar playbook to that used by traditional waste-burning companies in the 1980s. They use the public’s well-founded concerns around plastic pollution to pursue government loopholes that make it easier to build and operate waste-burning facilities. These deceptively named “advanced recycling” facilities superheat plastic and other trash, essentially melting and boiling it into dirty fuels, monomers (the building blocks of plastic), and waste byproducts. Meanwhile, they want people to believe that these facilities will solve our plastic crisis.

The Truth About the New Wave of Trash Burners

Here’s what fossil fuel giants and lobbying groups, like the American Chemistry Council, aren’t telling us as they push for this next generation of trash burners:

Facilities that superheat plastics are toxic and climate-damaging. It doesn’t matter whether you call it incineration or “advanced recycling.” Using heat to break down plastics requires a huge amount of external energy (supplied by burning fossil fuels) and releases toxics and climate-damaging gasses.

Burning plastic keeps us hooked on plastic. High-heat plastics facilities depend on a steady stream of plastic feedstock. And that’s the whole point. The fossil fuel industry makes money by turning oil and gas into plastic. Now they want to make even more money by burning that plastic – while claiming that they’ve made plastic more “recyclable” and “sustainable.” A big win for oil giants. A huge loss for the rest of us.

Injustice and environmental racism are central to their strategy. Throughout the country, fossil fuel giants push for laws that exempt plastic-burning facilities from public permitting processes, siting restrictions, operating conditions, and other rules that normally apply to traditional trash-burners. And as lawmakers disenfranchise communities and remove commonsense protections, the industry once again shoves these facilities down the throats of communities of color and low-income communities.

Zero Waste Means No Trash to Burn

Trash-burning companies, fossil fuel giants, the plastic industry, and anyone else looking to make a buck on the backs of those forced to live near toxic facilities, will keep looking for new and inventive ways to burn trash. As we’ve already seen, the plastics industry uses misleading words and phrases to describe technology that keeps us hooked on single-use plastics. Waste incinerators help huge corporations, like Amazon, promote “zero waste to landfill” efforts by burning their commercial waste. And they all continue to hide the truth about what they’re really doing and who they’re hurting.

Here’s the bottom line: trash-burning (in all its forms and under all its pseudonyms) hurts communities, damages our climate, and perpetuates environmental injustice and racism. And it keeps us hooked on a cycle of extraction of fossil fuels, making plastic, and disposing of single-use products and packaging.

We can break that cycle. With Zero Waste reforms, we can reduce and eliminate single-use waste, promote real recycling and reuse, and prioritize healthy solutions like composting. If there’s nothing left to burn, then there’s nothing left for trash burning companies to lie about.

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