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Waste Disposal: Closed (Incineration) and Open-Air Burning and Landfills

Solid wastes are the discarded leftovers of our advanced consumer society. This growing mountain of garbage and trash represents not only an attitude of indifference toward valuable natural resources, but also a serious economic and public health problem. – Jimmy Carter



Incineration is a disposal method in which solid organic wastes are subjected to combustion so as to convert them into residue and gaseous products. This method can be used both for solid waste management and solid residue from waste water management. The process reduces the volume of solid waste to 20 to 30 percent of its original volume. Incineration and other high temperature waste treatment systems are sometimes described as thermal treatment. Incinerators convert waste materials into heat, gas, steam, and ash (Conserve Energy Future, 2017). 


Incineration is typically carried out on a large scale by industry. It is used to dispose of solid, liquid and gaseous waste, and it is recognized as a practical method of disposing of certain hazardous waste materials (such as biological medical waste). Incineration is a controversial method of waste disposal, due to issues such as emission of gaseous pollutants. It is especially common in countries such as Japan where land is more scarce, as incineration facilities generally do not require as much area as landfills (Conserve Energy Future, 2017).

(Source: M & C Tech Group)

Burning has a long history in municipal solid waste management. Some American cities began to burn their garbage in the late nineteenth century in devices called cremators. These were not very efficient, however, and cities went back to dumping and other methods. In the 1930s and 1940s, many cities built new types of more-efficient garbage burners known as incinerators. The early incinerators were rather dirty in terms of their emissions of air pollutants, and beginning in the 1950s they were gradually shut down.

However, in the 1970s, waste burning enjoyed another revival. These newer incinerators, many of which are still in operation, are called "resource recovery" or "waste-to-energy" plants. In addition to burning garbage, they produce heat or electricity that can be used in nearby buildings or residences, or sold to a utility. Many local governments became interested in waste-to-energy plants following the energy crisis in 1973. However, since the mid-1980s, it has become difficult to find locations to build these facilities, mainly because of public opposition focused on air-quality issues.

Another problem with incineration is that it generates ash, which must be landfilled. Incinerators usually reduce the volume of garbage by 70–90%. The remainder of the incinerated waste comes out as ash that often contains high concentrations of toxic substances. In 1994 the United States Supreme Court ruled that some ash produced by municipal solid-waste incinerators must be treated as a hazardous waste, because of high levels of toxic substances such as lead and cadmium. This means that incinerator ash now has to be tested, and part or all of the material may have to go to a hazardous waste landfill rather than a standard landfill.

(Source: Global Environment Centre Foundation)

Efforts to reduce these problems are constantly underway with new designs and concepts for incinerators being tried. One such waste-to-energy technology for solid waste being tried in the United States is called fluidized-bed incineration. About 40% of incinerators in Japan use this technology, which is designed to have lower emissions of some air pollutants than conventional incinerators. Nevertheless, due to the disadvantages of incineration, non-disposal methods such as waste prevention and re-use and recycling have become more common. Because of public concerns and the high costs of burning, local governments would like to reduce use of incineration.

Open Burning


An interesting offshoot of incineration is open burning, which is the burning of any matter in such a manner that products of combustion resulting from the burning are emitted directly into the ambient (surrounding outside) air without passing through an adequate stack, duct or chimney. Generally, anytime one lights a fire outside, it is open burning.

The most common example of open burning in the United States is backyard trash burning. The types of trash often burned are paper, cardboard, food scraps, plastics, and yard trimmings. The burning may occur in a burn barrel or burn box, a wood stove, or an open pit.

Dangers of Open Burning


Open burning can present serious health threats to the person doing the burning and to nearby family and neighbors. It can increase the risk of heart disease and cause special problems for people with respiratory conditions such as emphysema or asthma. These problems include lung and eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, asthma attacks, and coughing.

Burning household trash also produces many toxic chemicals and is one of the largest known sources of dioxins in the nation. Dioxins are highly toxic, long-lasting organic compounds that are dangerous even at extremely low levels. They have been linked to several health problems, including cancer and developmental and reproductive disorders. Dioxins are formed when products containing carbon and chlorine are burned. Even very small amounts of chlorine can produce dioxins. Trying to prevent dioxins from forming by separating out items high in chlorine content is not effective, since low levels of chlorine are present in most household trash (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 2017). The remaining ash also contains toxic substances. These toxins leach into the soil to be taken up by plants or may get into streams, lakes, ponds or groundwater.

Pollutants from burn barrels can be especially harmful depending on the type of waste materials being burned but emissions include dioxins, ash, furans, halogenated hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, lead, barium, chromium, cadmium, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, arsenic or mercury. Burn barrels also often emit acid vapors and carcinogenic tars. Burn barrels emit more pollutants because they operate at relatively low temperatures (400-500 degrees F) resulting in incomplete combustion of the wastes being burned. They also are less efficient at combustion, and emissions are concentrated close to the ground, thus creating a greater risk of direct exposure to harmful pollutants for persons nearby. The closer you stand to the burn barrel, the more of these harmful chemicals you may inhale (North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, 2017).

Most people who burn their waste do not realize how harmful this practice is to them. Why is it done? People burn trash for various reasons—either because it is easier than hauling it to the local disposal site or to avoid paying for regular waste collection service.




States are responsible for regulating open burning. The Open Burning Rule is one of North Carolina's oldest air quality regulations, first adopted in 1971. The rule prohibits much outdoor burning and sets conditions for allowable fires. Under the rule, it is always illegal to burn trash and other non-vegetative materials. Leaves, branches and other plant growth can be burned under certain conditions. Persons who willfully or negligently violate an environmental standard can be fined up to $25,000 a day, imprisoned for six months, or both.


(Source: Ashley Felton)

The first humans did not worry much about waste management. They simply left their garbage where it dropped. However, as permanent communities developed, people began to dispose of their waste in designated dumping areas. The use of such ‘open dumps’ for garbage is still common in many parts of the world. Open dumps have major disadvantages, however, especially in heavily populated areas. Toxic chemicals can filter down through a dump and contaminate groundwater. The liquid that filters through a dump or landfill is called leachate. Dumps may also generate methane, a flammable and explosive gas produced when organic wastes decompose under oxygen-poor conditions.


The landfill, also known as the ‘sanitary landfill,’ was invented in England in the 1920s. At a landfill, the garbage is compacted and covered at the end of every day with several inches of soil. Landfilling became common in the United States in the 1940s. By the late 1950s, it was the dominant method for disposing municipal solid waste in the nation.


Early landfills had significant problems with leachate and methane, but those have largely been resolved at facilities built since about the early 1970s. Well-engineered landfills are lined with several feet of clay and with thick plastic sheets. Leachate is collected at the bottom, drained through pipes, and processed. Methane gas is also safely piped out of many landfills.

The dumping of waste does not just take place on land. Ocean dumping, in which barges carry garbage out to sea, was once used as a disposal method by some United States coastal cities and is still practiced by some nations. Sewage sludge, or waste material from sewage treatment, was dumped at sea in huge quantities by New York City as recently as 1992, but this is now prohibited in the United States. (The preceding  four paragraphs are drawn verbatim from Conserve Energy Future, 2017. 

A landfill compaction vehicle in action.

               (Source: Ropable)

What are the consequences of open dumps or poorly made/maintained landfills? They can be extremely serious (Eschool, 2015). 


         * Surface water contamination. Waste that ends up in water bodies negatively changes the chemical composition of the water. Technically, this is called water pollution. This will affect all ecosystems existing in the water. It can also cause harm to animals that drink from such polluted water.

          * Soil contamination. Hazardous chemicals that get into the soil (contaminants) can harm plants when they take up the contamination through their roots. If humans eat plants and animals that have been in contact with polluted soils, there can be negative impact on their health.


          * Pollution. Bad waste management practices can result in land and air pollution and can cause respiratory problems and other adverse health effects as contaminants are absorbed through the lungs into other parts of the body.


          * Leachate. Liquid that forms as water and trickles through contaminated areas is called leachate. It forms a very harmful mixture of chemicals that may result in hazardous substances entering surface water, groundwater or soil.


          * Municipal well-being. Everyone wants to live and visit places that are clean, fresh and healthy. A city with poor sanitation, foul smells, and waste matter all over the place does not attract people, investors and tourists. Such cities tend to have poor living standards.


          * Recycling revenue. Cities that do not invest in recycling and proper waste control miss out on revenue from recycling. They also miss out on job opportunities that come from recycling, composting and businesses that work with them.”

What Can Be Done?

The starting points for doing something about the many from proper and improper incineration and from landfills is the same as with all of the environmental issues covered in this section of the website:

  • Become more knowledgeable about this issue.


  • Discuss this issue with others; learn from them and help them learn from you.


  • Join forces with groups and organizations that are knowledgeable about environmental issues in general (BEAT!) and about this issue in particular. Organizations have greater access to scientific expertise, have larger budgets, have more contacts with the media, and have the force of combining many voices into one.


  • Advocate for proper waste prevention techniques including re-use and recycling and proper waste disposal techniques including regulation of incineration, tight controls on open-air burning, reduction in the amount of material going to landfills, and efficient and safe maintenance of landfills. Advocate for your local government to support and facilitate waste prevention and effective and waste disposal.  


  • Become a role model for personal commitment to waste prevention and minimizing the amount of waste disposal. Advocate for individuals and families in your community to commit to effective waste prevention and waste disposal.  

  • Examine the values and political position on this issue of candidates running for political office. Federal support for a strong Environmental Protection Agency is very important. Support for a meaningful Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina is very important. Support by North Carolina’s governor and state legislature for taking a scientific approach to waste disposal is absolutely critical. Look for candidates that emphasize the importance of environmental impact in making decisions about what to do or not do.



Conserve Energy Future. 2017 “What is Waste Management?”

E-School Today. 2015 “Facts and Tips on Waste Management.”


North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. 2017 “Open Burning.”


Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 2017 “Health and Environmental Effects of Open Burning.”

Read and See More on Waste Disposal: Incineration, Open Burning, and Landfills

Brian Bausback. 2016 “The 3 Most Common Landfill Problems & Solutions.”

     Describes problems with toxins, leachate, and greenhouse gases and ways to address them.

Steve Collins. 2017 “Lawmakers Seek to Cool Controversy On Open Burn Permits.”

     Controversy in Maine when a fee is implemented for Open Burn permits.

Green Garage. 2017 “8 Pros and Cons of Incineration.”

      Brief description of 5 pros and 3 cons of using incineration for waste disposal.

Dan Haugen. 2013 “Is Burning Garbage Green? In Sweden There is Little Debate.”

      Describes Sweden’s commitment to waste-to-energy incinerators.

Lucy McAlister. 2013 “The Human and Environmental Effects of E-Waste.”

      E-waste as a global environmental and health problem.

Jared Skye. 2017 “Environmental Problems: Landfills.”

      Environmental problems related to landfills.

(Sample Scholarly Article) Lee Uising, Han Jeongwoo, and Michael Wang. 2017 “Evaluation of Landfill Gas Emissions from Municipal Solid Waste Landfills for the Life-cycle Analysis of Waste-to-Energy Pathway.” Journal of Cleaner Production 166 (10):335-342.

     Landfill gas emissions from specific waste streams are evaluated. It is discovered that waste-to-energy pathways displace waste landfills avoiding landfill gas emission.

(Video) Lauren Singer. “How San Francisco is Becoming a Zero Waste City”

     San Francisco has determined to become a zero waste city with no trash being sent to landfills.

(Video) New York Times: “Where Does New York City Trash Go?”

     Describes how New York City's daily trash is disposed.

Sample of Scholarly Journals:

  • Environmental and Resource Economics

  • Environmental Monitoring and Assessment

  • Journal of Cleaner Production

  • Journal  of Environmental Assessment  Policy and Management

  • Journal of Environmental Economics and  Management

  • Waste Management and Research

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