17. What is incineration?

Incineration is a waste treatment process that involves the combustion of organic substances contained in waste materials. Incineration and other high temperature waste treatment systems are described as “thermal treatment“.

Incineration of waste materials converts the waste into ash, flue gas, and heat. The ash is mostly formed by the inorganic constituents of the waste, and may take the form of solid lumps or particulates carried by the flue gas. The flue gases must be cleaned of gaseous and particulate pollutants before they are dispersed into the atmosphere. In some cases, the heat generated by incineration can be used to generate electric power.

Incineration with energy recovery is one of several waste-to-energy (WtE) technologies such as gasification, Plasma arc gasification, pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion. Incineration may also be implemented without energy and materials recovery.

In several countries, there are still concerns from experts and local communities about the environmental impact of incinerators (see arguments against incineration).

In some countries, incinerators built just a few decades ago often did not include a materials separation to remove hazardous, bulky or recyclable materials before combustion. These facilities tended to risk the health of the plant workers and the local environment due to inadequate levels of gas cleaning and combustion process control. Most of these facilities did not generate electricity.

Incinerators reduce the solid mass of the original waste by 80–85% and the volume (already compressed somewhat in garbage trucks) by 95-96 %, depending on composition and degree of recovery of materials such as metals from the ash for recycling.

Incineration has particularly strong benefits for the treatment of certain waste types in niche areas such as clinical wastes and certain hazardous wastes where pathogens and toxins must be destroyed by high temperatures.

Below is a schematic of a typical waste incineration process:

Waste combustion is particularly popular in countries such as Japan where land is a scarce resource. Denmark and Sweden have been leaders in using the energy generated from incineration for more than a century. In 2005, waste incineration produced 4.8 % of the electricity consumption and 13.7 % of the total domestic heat consumption in Denmark.