An Industry Blowing Smoke

10 Reasons Why Gasification, Pyrolysis & Plasma Incineration are Not “Green Solutions”

Studies that have comprehensively reviewed gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators have found that they provide little to no benefit when compared to mass burn incinerators, while being an even riskier investment.


Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance

Studies that have comprehensively reviewed gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators have found that they provide little to no benefit when compared to mass burn incinerators, while being an even riskier investment. For example, the Fichtner Consulting Engineers report The Viability of Advanced Thermal Treatment in the UK commissioned by the United Kingdom Environmental Services Training in 2004 states that, “Many of the perceived benefits of gasification and pyrolysis over combustion technology proved to be unfounded. These perceptions have arisen mainly from inconsistent comparisons in the absence of quality information.” The core impacts of all types of incinerators remain the same: they are toxic to public health, harmful to the economy, environment and climate, and undermine recycling and waste reduction programs.
The term “staged incineration” referenced by Fichtner Consulting Engineers (2004) is used in this report to refer to gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incineration technologies. All of these technologies utilize a multi-step process that results in incineration. The following is a summary of the ten reasons addressed in this report why gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incineration are not “green solutions” as claimed by industry representatives:

Reason #1: When compared to conventional mass burn incinerators, staged incinerators emit comparable levels of toxic emissions.
The European Commission’s Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Reference Document on the Best Available Technologies for Waste Incineration found that “…emission levels for releases to air from the combustion stage of such [gasification and pyrolysis] installations are the same as those established for incineration installations.” Overall, identified emissions from staged incinerators include particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, carbon dioxide and furans. Even small amounts of some of these toxins 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.6 Dioxin is the most potent carcinogen known to humankind–to which there is no known safe level of exposure. Health impacts of dioxin include cancer, disrupted sexual development, birth defects, immune system damage, behavioral disorders and altered sex ratios. Incineration of municipal solid waste is a leading human-made source of dioxins in the United States. Particularly at high risk of exposure to dioxin and other contaminants are workers at incinerators11 and people living near incinerators, but the toxic impacts of incineration are farreaching: persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dioxins and furans travel thousands of miles and accumulate in animals and humans. Contaminants are also distributed when food produced near incinerators is shipped to other communities. 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.

Reason #2: Emissions limits for incinerators (including mass burn, gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incineration) don’t ensure safety. Also, emissions from incinerators are not measured sufficiently and thus overall emissions levels reported can be misleading. In addition, emission limits are not always adequately enforced.

First, emissions standards tend not to be based on what is scientifically safe for public health, but on what is determined to be technologically feasible for a given source of pollution. As the U.S. EPA itself has written, “Since EPA could not clearly define a safe level of exposure to these cancer-causing pollutants, it became almost impossible to issue regulations.” Instead, U.S. EPA standards were created solely to require “emitters to use the best control technologies already demonstrated by industry sources.” As a result, these standards allow for the release of unsafe levels of harmful pollutants such as dioxins, mercury and lead. Additionally, these inadequate standards only regulate a handful of the thousands of known pollutants, and do not take into account the exposure to multiple chemicals at the same time. These are called “synergistic” impacts and have countless harmful effects on health and the environment. Second, emissions from incinerators are not measured sufficiently. The most dangerous known pollutants, such as dioxin and mercury, are rarely monitored on a continuous or accurate basis in gaseous, solid and liquid emissions from incinerators. Thus overall emissions levels reported can be misleading. Third, emission limits that do exist are not always adequately enforced. Existing incinerators are sometimes allowed to continue to operate despite emission limit violations.

Reason #3: Gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators have a dismal track-record plagued by malfunctions, explosions and shut-downs.
Many operational problems at staged incinerators have proven costly and dangerous for the communities where such facilities have been constructed. For example, Thermoselect’s Karlsruhe,
Germany incinerator–one of the largest municipal solid waste gasification incinerators in the world–was forced to close down permanently in 2004 due to years of operational problems and loses totaling over $400 million Euros. Operational problems included an explosion, cracks in the reactor siding due to temperatures and corrosion, a leaking waste water basin, a leaking sediment basin that held cyanide-contaminated wastewater, and forced closure after uncontrolled releases of toxic gases were discovered. Likewise, in 1998, a “state-of-the-art” pyrolysis incinerator in Furth, Germany that was processing municipal solid waste suffered a major failure, resulting in the release of pyrolysis gas into the air. An entire neighborhood had to be evacuated, and some residents in the surrounding community were brought to the hospital for observation. In many countries, including Canada, France, India, the United States and United Kingdom, municipalities have rejected proposals for gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incineration technologies because the emissions, economic, and energy benefits claimed by industry representatives have proven to be unfounded. As the Palm Beach Post newspaper reported about the Geoplasma plasma arc proposal in St. Lucie County, Florida, U.S., “‘The numbers,’ Commissioner Coward said, ‘were pretty impressive.’ He asked for proof. The company couldn’t provide it. The county hired a consultant, who said there is no proof.”

Reason #4: Staged incineration is not compatible with recycling; gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators compete for the same financing and materials as recycling programs. Incineration also undermines efforts to minimize the production of toxic and unrecyclable materials.
In order to survive financially, staged incineration technologies need a constant supply of both waste and public money in the form of long term “put or pay” contracts. Put or pay incinerator contracts require municipalities to pay a predetermined monthly fee to the incinerator for decades to come, regardless of whether it makes economic or ecological sense to do so in the future. As a result, these contracts destroy the financial incentives for a city to reduce and separate its waste at the source, and reuse, recycle and compost. Staged incinerators destroy otherwise recyclable and compostable materials. U.S. EPA data shows that approximately 90% of materials disposed in U.S. incinerators and landfills are recyclable and compostable materials. Similarly, even with a citywide recycling rate at over 70%, the San Francisco Department of Environment 2006 Waste Characterization Study found that two-thirds of the remaining materials that are being disposed of are readily recyclable and compostable materials. As the San Francisco City and County Environment Director said in a 2009 press release, “‘If we captured everything going to landfill that could have been recycled or composted, we’d have a 90 percent recycling rate.'”
The high costs and long-term waste contracts of gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators also undermine efforts to minimize the production of toxic and unrecyclable materials. The small percentage of materials left over after maximum recycling, reuse and composting–called “residuals”– are often toxic, complex and have low energy value. Staged incineration is not an appropriate strategy to deal with this portion of the waste stream. Doing so creates harmful emissions, can facilitate operational issues, provides little to no energy value, and undermines efforts to minimize 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.

Reason #5: Staged incinerators are often even more expensive and financially risky than mass burn incinerators.

The public bears the financial burden of all types of incineration. Costs to local governments are high, and communities end up paying with tax money and public health costs. Alternatively, recycling and composting make more sense economically than either incineration or landfilling.
Gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incineration are often even more expensive and financially risky than already costly conventional mass burn incinerators. The United Kingdom Fitchtner Consulting Engineers report The Viability of Advanced Thermal Treatment found that, “…there is no reason to believe that these technologies [gasification and pyrolysis] are any less expensive than combustion and it is likely, from information available, that the more complex processes are significantly more expensive.” One example of higher costs are the proposed tipping fee estimates provided by gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerator companies to Los Angeles County, California, US in 2005. The estimated tipping fees are two to four times greater than the average U.S. incinerator tipping fee. Gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators also present financial risk due to an operational history plagued by malfunctions, an inability to produce electricity reliability, regular shut-downs and explosions. As the European Commission 2006 report concludes, “At the time of writing, the additional technological risk associated with the adoption of gasification and pyrolysis for many wastes, remains significantly greater than that for better proven, incineration type thermal treatments.”

Reason #6: Incinerators inefficiently capture a small amount of energy by destroying diminishing resources. Gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators are even less efficient at generating electricity than mass burn incinerators.

Incinerator power plants inefficiently generate electricity through the combustion of waste and/or waste gases. In terms of overall energy benefit, it is always preferable to recycle materials rather than incinerate them. Recycling saves three to five times the amount of energy that incinerator power plants generate.
As the 2008 Tellus Institute report Assessment of Materials Management Options for the Massachusetts Solid Waste Master Plan Review commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection explains: Recycling saves energy, reduces raw material extraction, and has beneficial climate impacts by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. Per ton of waste, the energy saved by recycling exceeds that created by landfill gases or the energy harnessed from thermal conversion technologies. Promoters of gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc incinerators claim that these technologies have higher energy efficiency rates than mass burn incinerators, but these claims are unfounded. In fact, the United Kingdom Fichtner Consulting Engineers report The Viability of Advanced Thermal Treatment found that, “The conversion efficiencies for the gasification and pyrolysis technologies reviewed were generally lower than that achievable by a modern [mass burn] combustion process.” Other researchers and journalists have found that some staged incineration plants have not been successful in producing more electricity than they consume in the process. The issue of energy inefficiency lies with the fundamental nature of staged incineration technologies. First, gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators often require pretreatment processes to prepare the wastes such as shredding and drying; these processes can consume significant quantities energy. Second, unlike mass burn incinerators which rely on oxygen to keep the fire burning, the starved-oxygen environments used in these technologies requires additional input of energy to maintain the process. This energy input is generated by the combustion of fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil, and by the use of heat and electricity generated by the incineration process.

Reason #7: Incinerating discarded materials depletes resources and in many cases permanently damages the natural environment.
The large volume of waste disposed in landfills and incinerators around the world is not sustainable. In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet’s natural resource base has been consumed.31 Incinerators contribute to the environmental crisis by cornering large amounts of public money for the purpose of long-term disposal of diminishing natural resources. Resolving the environmental crisis requires that municipalities invest in preventing waste and reusing, recycling and composting materials currently disposed in incinerators and landfills. It is vital that biodegradable (biomass) materials immediately cease to be put into landfills, where these materials decompose in conditions that generate potent greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, incinerating biodegradable and other materials contributes greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation. For the health of the climate and the soil, it makes far more sense to prevent waste and compost, anaerobically digest or recycle biodegradable materials than to incinerate or landfill them. An emerging technology called anaerobic digestion shows promising signs for safely and sustainably processing source separated biodegradable discards–while simultaneously generating energy. As the 2008 Tellus Institute report Assessment of Materials Management Options for the Massachusetts Solid Waste Master Plan Review commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection concludes: The prospects for anaerobic digestion facilities appear to be more favorable [than gasification and pyrolysis] given the extensive experience with such facilities in the U.S. for the processing of sewage sludge and farm waste and the fact that no significant human health or environmental impacts have been cited in the literature. Moreover, since anaerobic digestion is more similar to composting than high-temperate combustion, its risks are expected to be akin to composting, which is considered low-risk.

Reason #8: Staged incineration technologies contribute to climate change, and investment in these technologies undermines truly climate-friendly solutions.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions released per ton of waste processed, recycling is a much preferable strategy to staged incineration. As the findings of the Tellus Institute report reveal: On a per ton basis, recycling saves more than seven times eCO2 than landfilling, and almost 18 times eCO2 reductions
from gasification/pyrolysis facilities. Mass burn incinerators emit more CO2 per unit of electricity generated than coal-fired power plants. Incinerators also emit indirect greenhouse gases such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxide (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), and sulfur dioxide (SO2).36 37 Gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incinerators are even less efficient generators of electricity than mass burn incinerators, and require inputs of additional fossil fuel-derived fuels and/or electricity to operate, and energy for the pre-processing of materials. As a result these incinerators may have an even larger climate footprint than conventional mass burn incinerators.
U.S. incinerators are among the top 15 major sources of direct greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that are listed in the US EPA’s most recent inventory of US greenhouse gas emissions.
Far greater than the impact of greenhouse gas emissions released from incinerators is the lifecycle climate impact of incinerating rather than preventing waste and reusing, recycling or composting materials. For every item that is incinerated or landfilled, a new one must be created from raw virgin resources rather than reused materials. For biodegradable materials, source separation of materials followed by composting and/or anaerobic digestion allows insignificant fugitive methane releases to the environment, and, overall, yields far fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than landfills and incinerators. Incinerator companies often do not count CO2 emissions released from biomass combustion and claim that these emissions are “climate neutral”. They claim that this is consistent with the protocol established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This is not accurate. The IPCC clearly states that biomass burning for energy can not be automatically considered carbon neutral even if the biomass is harvested sustainably.
The IPCC also clearly states that incinerating biomass is not “CO2 neutral” or “carbon neutral”. Ignoring emissions from incinerating biomass fails to account for lifecycle releases in CO2 caused when materials are incinerated rather than conserved, reused, recycled or composted.

Reason #9: All types of incinerators require a large amount of capital investment, but they create relatively few jobs when compared to recycling and composting programs.

Recycling industries provide employment benefits that far outpace that of waste incinerators and landfills. The U.S. EPA has said that, “for every 100 recycling jobs created, …just 10 jobs were lost in the solid waste industry, and three jobs were lost in the timber harvesting industry. There is no specific job data for staged incinerator technologies available, but it is likely that job prospects for these facilities would be similar to mass burn incinerators. Because incinerators compete with recycling programs for the same funding and materials, constructing a gasification, pyrolysis or plasma incinerator can undermine job creation opportunities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s U.S. Recycling Economic Information Study found that recycling industries already provide more than 1.1 million jobs in the U.S., which is comparable in size to that of the U.S. auto manufacturing and machinery manufacturing industries. Recycling industries generate an annual payroll of nearly $37 billion and gross over $236 billion in annual revenue. With a meager 34% national recycling rate in the U.S., there is great potential for what can still be achieved for workers and the economy through greater materials reuse. The quality of recycling jobs is not guaranteed. In some locations where worker rights are not protected, recycling jobs can be unsafe and low paying. However, employment conditions can be significantly improved when workers are unionized.
Regions that have made commitments to increase recycling rather than disposal are realizing tangible benefits to their local economies. For instance, because the state of California, U.S., requires the recycling and reuse of 50 percent of all municipal solid waste, recycling accounts for 85,000 jobs and generates $4 billion in salaries and wages. Similarly, according to a 2007 Detroit City Council report, a 50 percent recycling rate in Detroit would likely result in the creation of more than 1,000 new jobs in that city alone. Greater public investment in reuse rather than disposal of valuable discarded materials could spark a green economy in countries around the world, restoring much-needed quality unionized jobs to communities.

Reason #10: Wasting valuable natural resources in incinerators and landfills is avoidable and unnecessary.
The vast majority of discarded resources can be reused, recycled or composted.46 Residual materials that are too toxic or complex to recycle can and should be required to be made so that they are recyclable, built to last, and non-toxic. To do so requires a commitment to work for what is known as “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), Seattle (U.S.) and others, have already made great progress to wards 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 for people in the planet, and creating locally-based green-collar jobs. A variety 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 in different locales. Supporting Zero Waste requires ending subsidies for waste projects such as staged incineration that contaminate environments and the people who live in them, and instead investing in innovative waste reduction, reuse and recycling programs. Besides saving resources and money, and generating more jobs for local communities, Zero Waste produces far less pollution than waste disposal techniques, including global warming pollution.