What’s going on?

Waste incineration is the burning of municipal solid waste to produce energy. Waste incineration first became popular in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century as a way to manage waste, but declined after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963 forced facilities to either adopt costly air pollution controls or shut down. In the 1970s and 1980s, waste-to-energy facilities rose again in popularity as a way to produce a low-cost energy alternative to coal, which was considered by some at the time to be a renewable energy source. 

Now, the number of incinerators has once again declined nationally due to public concern about their environmental and health impacts, as well as a loss in profitability. The only new incinerator built in the U.S. since the 1980s was constructed in 2015 in Palm Beach County, Florida. 

Florida is currently the country’s waste incineration capital, with 10 facilities combusting 8% of its municipal solid waste – over 4 million tons in 2020. The recent passing of a new bill, the Municipal Solid Waste-to-Energy Program, will increase funding for solid waste combustion in Florida. But many are fighting back against this decision. 

Why it matters.

Incinerators release a wide range of pollutants. Research shows that the pollutants with the greatest potential to cause health effects are particulate matter, lead, mercury, dioxins, and furans. According to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), an advocacy group fighting for environmental justice and sustainable solutions, this burden is often disproportionately distributed.

GAIA states that several of the largest and most polluting incinerators in the U.S., including the Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility #1, are in predominantly low-income communities and communities of color, commonly referred to as environmental justice (EJ) communities. Overall, 58 incinerators, or 79% of all incinerators in the U.S., are in EJ communities.  

What you can do:

As our growing population produces more waste, new methods will need to be devised to manage it. Here are some things you can do to help voice your support for sustainable waste management: 

  • Let your legislators know how you feel about recycling programs and waste management options
  • Reduce your own waste 
    • Reduce your consumption of single-use items 
    • Reuse items whenever possible 
    • Recycle properly 
    • Compost 
Information from Florida Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Waste Dive, and National Research Council Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration.