Garbage burning may not be as harmless a method of waste disposal as has been thought so far. In Germany, new data have led to a resumption of discussion.

The average German throws out about 600 kg of household waste a year – these are official figures. Although, according to Eurostat, the European Statistical Office, Germany is one of the continent’s leaders in the processing of waste and the country’s population is meticulously throwing valuable recyclables into special containers, Germany continues to burn huge amounts of waste – and more and more from year to year.

How to explain this contradiction? Although 70% of household waste in Germany goes to recycling points, “it does not mean that it is actually being recycled,” explains Michael Jedelhauser of the German Union for the Conservation of Nature (NABU). For example, as it turns out, only 16% of plastic waste delivered to a collection point is recycled. And the rest, as the latest figures from the Conversio Marketing Institute show, is being sent either abroad or to one of Germany’s incinerators. There are 66 of them in Germany, and for the whole of 2018 they were disposed of by burning more than 26 million tons of waste. Although this process is used in Germany to produce heat or electricity, experts have recently begun to doubt the environmental friendliness of such a model. After all, incinerated garbage does not completely disappear.

Slag and carcinogens

“It is very common to hear the opinion that incineration is an environmental technology that leaves no waste after its use,” Thomas Fischer, of Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), tells DW in an interview. ! ”

As a result of combustion, carcinogenic substances – dioxins and furans are released, and as a result of the recycling process remain toxic to the environment and humans. Some experts see these substances as one of the factors that cause cancer in humans, diseases of the respiratory tract, nervous system, and hereditary diseases.

Ecological waste incineration?

But not all experts share these concerns. “The incineration of waste in the presence of modern equipment poses no danger in terms of emissions into the atmosphere,” says Henning Friege, an environmental expert and chemist by education. – Technological progress by the mid-1990s has completely addressed the problem of the effects of incineration on human health. ”

Indeed, state-of-the-art filtration technologies help minimize harmful emissions. As the German Combustion Firm Association (ITAD) points out, waste incineration today is “safe, clean and environmentally friendly”. The main argument in the profile association is the use of combustion to produce electricity or heat: for example, in 2018, electricity was produced in this way, comparable to the capacity of a medium-sized coal power plant. Moreover, according to research by the US Environmental Protection Agency, carbon dioxide gas production is more environmentally friendly than using coal or oil – and is second only to gas power plants.

Incineration: Not just smoke

But it does not soothe the opponents of incineration. In addition to emissions into the atmosphere, they also indicate other by-products of the process. Thus, annually in Germany alone, from the filtration plants of incinerators it is necessary to withdraw about 350 thousand tons of poisonous dust, dissolve in saline solution and with the strictest safety measures be transported to one of the mines in Thuringia for disposal.

In addition, at the end of the combustion process, about 5 million tonnes of slag remain in Germany each year, some of which goes to the production of slag blocks used for road construction and noise suppression. In Germany, this is practiced – unlike, for example, Switzerland, where such use of slag is strictly prohibited. Rainer Bunge, an expert on renewable energy and environmental protection at the Rappersville Technical Institute in Switzerland, points to this fact in an interview with DW.

What to do with slag?

According to the expert, although in the process of processing the bulk of the harmful substances from the slag can be removed, a certain part of them – for example, heavy metals – remains. And there is a risk – “albeit small,” according to Bunge – that sooner or later, these metals will be in the environment. Therefore, in Switzerland, where garbage is also burned, the slag is stored in special landfills – despite the fact that the proportion of pre-extracted metals from the slag is about one third higher than the current German standards. “It is not cheap to store such slag, but environmental friendliness is present – especially when compared to the uncontrolled use of slag in road construction,” the expert says.

In Germany, the use of slag is prohibited only in water protection zones. And in general, most experts in the country are now confident in the safety of incineration of the environment – provided the use of modern equipment, of course. Thus, according to the plans of the German Ministry of the Environment, although by 2022 the share of recyclable plastic waste should increase to 63% in Germany, the incineration and use of cinder blocks will continue.