The debate between incineration and landfilling as a means to manage a community’s solid waste is a hot topic right now internationally. Can either be done responsibly? In the long run is it just polluted ground water versus polluted air? After digging deeper I believe that landfilling is the environmentally correct solution for most communities – but what about an island? Will the geographic location of an island community and its unique context ultimately be the differentiator?
I am currently working on an island project in the Pacific Ocean which will be home to 6,000 inhabitants within 15-20 years time. The approach to solid waste management here starts with reduction, reuse, and composting; but will have to end in either incineration or landfilling of the remaining +/- 20% of the island’s waste stream. Note that we are further exploring a mechanical biological treatment system which yields better than 85% diversion.
An incineration plant would burn solid waste and use the heat for energy production. This would produce diesel fuel-free energy (meaning fuel imports would be lower), and it would reduce the waste sent to landfills considerably. It would also greatly reduce cost of shipping waste off the island, would not leach into the ground water, and would produce little to no methane gas. Local pollution is a problem with incineration: heavy metals are mainly deposited in the nearby air and water, along with dangerous dioxins (that accumulate in food) and high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. Some of the pollutants released cause acid rain, and the mercury from incinerators can accumulate in the local fish population until it is a danger to humans. As an island set within an amazingly rich environment it is hard to support the development of such a facility. On a more global scale: the ash dumped into landfills is toxic waste and that burden would go onto those who dispose of it.
Landfilling the solid waste would bring almost no local pollution as the island itself is not geologically suitable for the development of a landfill site; and waste would need to be shipped to the mainland. It is known that this existing landfill site is taxed and has issues related to high methane gas emissions (the worst greenhouse gas) and contaminated water getting into the groundwater aquifer because of imperfect sealing. When using CO2 as an indicator greenhouse gas, it actually appears that shipping the waste is more harmful than the incineration of it.
The differentiator for this project may be that incineration leads to a disincentive for more environmentally friendly methods of waste disposal in the long run; while landfilling allows for more alterations within the waste system as the project develops and the population grows. Not an easy choice in any event – your thoughts / comments gladly accepted as we work toward a final solution…