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Incinerators are NOT "waste-to-energy" facilities

Note to Journalists and Activists:
Incinerators are NOT "waste-to-energy" facilities

Words Mean Things

Any journalist seeking to be accurate and objective should never call an incinerator a "waste-to-energy" facility. Journalists and environmentalists should not spread the confusion by repeating this public relations term.

The term "waste-to-energy incinerator" should be replaced with simply "incinerator" or "[waste type] incinerator" (like "municipal solid waste incinerator"). Even if the "waste-to-energy" term were accurate, it's like saying "incinerator incinerator" rather than describing what is being incinerated.

There is no such thing as waste-to-energy. "Waste-to-energy" is a public relations term used by incinerator promoters, but is not an accurate term, scientifically, as there is no such thing. In the bigger picture, they're waste-OF-energy facilities.

Scientifically, there is no such thing as "waste-to-energy." Matter cannot be turned into energy without a nuclear reaction, and thankfully, that's not what is happens with incinerators. What is actually happening is that waste is turned into toxic ash and toxic air emissions while a small fraction of the energy in the waste is recovered in the process.

In the environmental advocacy community, we've come to call them "waste-OF-energy" facilities because we know that recycling and composting the same discarded materials saves 3-5 times as much energy as incinerators can recover. This was first documented in 1996, and the basic laws of physics haven't changed since then.[1] It's self-evident, as all of the energy it takes to make paper, for instance (cutting trees, trucking them to a paper mill, burning coal to power the mill, shipping the paper around more...) isn't all present in the paper itself, as much of it went up the smokestacks at the mill or the tailpipes of the logging and trucking equipment. Recycling the same paper saves that energy by avoiding new extraction and production.

What is an incinerator?

Dictionary definition: Incinerator - noun - a furnace or apparatus for burning trash, garbage, etc., to ashes. (

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's legal definition:

Municipal waste combustor, MWC, or municipal waste combustor unit: (1) Means any setting or equipment that combusts solid, liquid, or gasified [municipal solid waste] including, but not limited to, field-erected incinerators (with or without heat recovery), modular incinerators (starved-air or excess-air), boilers (i.e., steam-generating units), furnaces (whether suspension-fired, grate-fired, mass-fired, air curtain incinerators, or fluidized bed-fired), and pyrolysis/combustion units.[2]

Elsewhere, EPA confirms that a "municipal waste combustor" is the same thing as a "municipal waste incinerator."[3]

From this definition, we see that various types of burners, including those that most insist that they are not incinerators (namely, pyrolysis, gasification and plasma arc facilities) are indeed incinerators. The European Union has similar legal definitions that make it clear that pyrolysis, gasification and plasma technologies are indeed incinerators.

Is it an incinerator or a power plant?

The industry prefers to be seen in a more positive light: as power plants, not as waste disposal facilities. Nearly all trash incinerators produce (nominal amounts of) energy. Energy production does not make them stop being incinerators. Waste incinerators make more money being paid to take waste than they make selling energy. According to the latest data from the Energy Information Administration, trash incineration is the most expensive type of electricity production to build or operate, so no energy company in their right mind would choose trash burning as an economical way to make energy.

Ted Michaels, president of the trash incinerator industry's trade association, the Energy Recovery Council, admitted on camera in testifying before Washington, DC City Council on March 18, 2013 that "waste-to-energy" facilities (incinerators) are primarily waste facilities, not power plants. This was in response to our testimony stating that trash incinerators are the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to dispose of waste, where Energy Justice director, Mike Ewall, documented how much dirtier they are than coal power plants. In response, Ted Michaels admitted that incinerators are more expensive than landfills and that they're dirtier than coal power plants. The only way he could wiggle out of the comparison to coal plants is to admit that "a waste-to-energy plant is designed to manage solid waste... the electricity output is a secondary function."[4]

Further evidence that incinerators are waste facilities and not power plants can be found in the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association's 2013 comments challenging an incinerator's permit and in this 2010 internal memo among Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection staff, spelling out that the largest trash incinerator in the nation is classified as a waste facility, not an energy generating facility, for regulatory/permitting purposes.

The longest-running news coverage of a single incinerator (in Harrisburg, PA) calls it an incinerator.

The longest-running incinerator in the U.S. is the one in Harrisburg, PA, operating since 1972, with a few years down as they completely rebuilt it from 2002 through 2006. As of 2014, it's now both the oldest and newest incinerator in the nation. The Harrisburg Patriot News has consistently described it as an incinerator. Search their website and you'll see about 45,200 hits for the term incinerator compared to only 612 hits for the term "waste-to-energy." Both the old and rebuilt incinerators in Harrisburg, as well as the nearby Lancaster incinerator (where most of the "waste-to-energy" terms are applied in the articles) use similar technologies, all of which fit firmly within EPA's definition of a municipal waste combustor. The only difference is that the Lancaster incinerator is more aggressive about their use of public relations.


[1] Morris, Jeffrey, and Canzoneri, Diana, "Recycling Versus Incineration: An Energy Conservation Analysis," Sound Resource Management Group (SRMG) Seattle, Journal of Hazardous Materials, Vol 47, Issues 1-3, pp. 277–293 (1996). The values used are available in a chart titled "Recycling Versus Incineration: An Energy Conservation Analysis" on p. 32 of the "Waste Incineration: A Dying Technology" report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

[2] 40 CFR 60.51a.

[3] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency settled this in 1992: "A municipal waste incinerator 'combusts' solid waste and thus is functionally synonymous with municipal waste combustor."

[4] Ted Michaels, President, Energy Recovery Council, March 18, 2013 testimony before Washington, DC City Council. Video of the hearing before the Committee on Transportation and the Environment is here: See 1:46 for the quote.