Intervenor: vol. 27, no. 1 - 2, January - June 2002

Pollution Prevention Options To Incineration

Dioxins and furans, and mercury have been shown to have dramatic negative effects on the health of humans and wildlife, even when present in the environment in very small concentrations. Since they are currently present in the environment at levels that threaten the well-being of humans and wildlife, most government jurisdictions have set a goal of virtual elimination of the discharge of these substances from human activities.

Incineration is a significant source of these toxics substances, and in May 2001, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) agreed to Canada-wide Standards (CWS) for emissions of dioxins and furans from incinerators. As part of this agreement, pollution prevention methods were agreed to as the preferred means of moving toward the virtual elimination of the emission of dioxins and to furans. The pollution prevention strategies that were to be investigated were waste diversion initiatives, waste segregation initiatives, combustion control, and alternative disposal or treatment technologies.

CELA undertook research for the first two of these issues: waste diversion initiatives and waste segregation initiatives. The research covered pollution prevention approaches for municipal solid waste (MSW) incineration, hazardous waste incineration, sewage sludge incineration, and biomedical waste incineration. In particular, the focus was on finding examples of regulatory initiatives in Canada, the United States, and Europe focused on pollution prevention.

The research found that while there are scattered efforts at pollution prevention going on in Canada, there are many areas such as producer stewardship initiatives in Europe or toxics reduction legislation and mercury bans in the United States, where Canada lags behind and could be doing a lot more (see Related Information below).

For MSW incineration, pollution prevention measures include legislation to retrieve products containing substances before they reach the municipal waste stream, legislation to reduce polyvinyl chloride (PVC) waste, producer stewardship arrangements that place responsibility for the fate of end-of-life products with the product's producer, and general reductions in the overall municipal waste stream.

For hazardous waste incineration, the most significant pollution prevention measures are toxics use reduction laws and clean production initiatives. These measures are beneficial beyond limiting the amounts of hazardous waste going to incinerators because they reduce the presence of toxic substances in the environment from the source. Toxics use reduction laws include elements such as targets for reducing the use of toxic substances and the amount of hazardous waste generated; toxics use reduction plans for facilities; educational and training programs, and funding assistance. Clean production initiatives cover all components of a product from concept to design to manufacturing and eventual fate, while trying to increase the recyclability and reduce the toxic substances content of products.

In the case of sewage sludge incineration, many municipalities have been closing sewage sludge incinerators or imposing sewer use bylaws that define limits on concentrations of substances discharged into sewer systems. However, the main alternative to incineration, land application of sewage sludge, then becomes the end point of hazardous materials remaining in the sludge. In order to remedy this danger, some jurisdictions have taken the further step of getting dischargers to the sewers to eliminate or reduce their use of mercury-containing items and of dioxins and furans precursors.

Finally, there are many current initiatives to reduce or eliminate biomedical waste incineration. These range from efforts to ban mercury from hospitals and health facilities except for certain critical uses where substitutes aren't yet available, to increasing efforts to reduce or eliminate PVC or chlorine containing products, known to be sources of dioxins and furans when incinerated, from health facilities through substituting alternative materials where possible. There are also efforts to reduce the incineration of biomedical wastes to the absolute minimum of pathological wastes that cannot currently be otherwise treated, and even here, technological advances in non-incineration technologies are beginning to provide safer alternatives to incineration.

CELA was an active participant throughout the CWS process and continues this level of participation through the incineration multi-stakeholder advisory group (IMAG) as the CCME explores pollution prevention options available to address incineration. The IMAG process is using CELA's research as a basis to develop pollution prevention recommendations to supplement the emissions standards for incinerators that have already been adopted by the CCME. Between last October and the end of May, this committee has held sixteen two-hour conference calls to hammer out recommendations for action by the federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments. It is expected that these recommendations will be sent to the CCME sometime this summer.

The full report, Pollution Prevention Alternatives to Incineration, describes these initiatives in greater detail, including links to many of the initiatives, (see Related Information below)

Lisa McShane is a researcher at CELA
John Jackson is an environmental consultant and CELA Board Member