Once early man discovered the secret to fire he started burning trash. Now we’re in the Plastic Age, and our trash is more tenacious than anything our ancestors threw out. Our nonbiodegradable plastic waste piles up in the oceans, washes up on beaches, enters our food chain. Burning plastic gets rid of it, but is it a viable solution to our plastic-waste mess?

The first trash incinerator in the United States was built at Governor’s Island in New York City in the 1880’s. Two million people lived in the city, they all produced garbage, and clean air was a luxury that hadn’t been invented yet. Incineration kept City residents from wading through their own trash.

Incinerators multiplied in the United States until the Clean Air Act of 1970 put an end to uncontrolled burning. Pollution control equipment had to be installed on incinerators or they were closed. In 1990 the EPA passed strict incinerator regulations on dioxin and mercury, then widely recognized as dangerous toxins. Once again, equipment was installed to meet the new regulations or the incinerators closed down.

Modern incinerators are much cleaner than before, and they also generate electricity with the heat produced. At these “waste-to-energy” or “renewable energy” plants, enormous cranes maneuver municipal waste from the pit where the garbage is tipped into a fiery combustion chamber. Heat from the burning trash converts water to steam which spins a turbine and produces electricity. Selling this electricity helps offset costs of running the plants.

Renewable Energy Facility 2

The newest, most advanced, cleanest incinerator in the United States is Renewable Energy Facility 2 in Palm Beach County, Florida. This plant serves 1.27 million people, burns 3000 tons, or 660 garbage trucks full of post-recycled waste per day and produces 100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 44,000 homes. Incineration reduces the volume of trash by 90%. The remaining 10% is bottom ash, minus metals which are recovered and recycled, and fly ash captured from flue gas. The ash is buried in the landfill, but in the future ash may be used to make concrete. Because Facility 2 keeps biodegradable trash out the landfill, methane, a potent global-warming gas that is created by anaerobic decomposition, is not produced. Facility 2 even has a rainwater collection system and cistern that provides water needed to make steam.

Our incinerators are better than ever before, yet we only burn around 12% of our municipal solid waste. Ray Schauer, with the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, leads waste engineers from around the country and the world on tours of the plant. “How come this isn’t done more?” is the question Schauer is always asked afterwards. Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility 2 took a whopping $672 million and ten years to build before it started operations in 2015. It was the first incinerator built in 20 years, and there hasn’t been one built in the United States since. Schauer says tipping fees in the urban northeast are creeping towards $90 per ton. At this rate he expects incineration to beat out new landfills for economic reasons. Countries in Europe and Asia with expensive land and energy are building more incineration plants now.

Incineration is one solution for our plastic waste mess, but right now it’s hard to compete with less expensive alternatives. What can we do here and now? Reduce, recycle, reuse and help clean up plastic waste that’s leaked into our environment. Grab a clean, used plastic bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Pick up trash. Throw it away. Reuse your plastic bags by adding them to a BlueTube, and help others keep shores clean and get plastic out of the ocean. If your favorite stretch of shore needs a BlueTube, sponsor one today!