Burning trash has a long history in the United States, and municipal solid waste incinerators have sparked resistance in many places. As an environmental justice scholar who works directly with low-income and communities of color, I see incineration as a poor waste management option.
Although these plants generate electricity from the heat created by burning trash, their primary purpose is waste disposal. Emissions from burning waste worsen environmental inequalities, create financial risks for host communities and reduce incentives to adopt more sustainable waste practices.
I recently co-authored a report (PDF) that describes signs of decline in the U.S. waste incineration industry due to many factors. They include a volatile revenue model, aging plants, high operation and maintenance costs and growing public interest in reducing waste, promoting environmental justice and combating climate change.
Nonetheless, 72 incinerators are still operating in the United States. Most of them — 58, or 80 percent — are sited in environmental justice communities, which we defined as areas where more than 25 percent of residents are low-income, people of color or both. Incinerators worsen cumulative impacts from multiple pollution sources on these overburdened neighborhoods.
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