What if someone told you there was a way for cities to get rid of all municipal waste and send only a fraction of it to a landfill? What if they told you that this method also converted the waste into usable energy?

Sound too good to be true? It is.

That's what student Destiny Watford thought when she learned about plans to construct an incinerator in her Baltimore neighborhood. The new incinerator would be located less than a mile from her high school and a nearby elementary school, and had been approved by the Public Service Commission as an "energy plant." Normally, a project such as this would not have been allowed in such close proximity to the school, but because the waste would be converted into fuel, the incinerator was able to bypass regulations and promoted as a "green" development, something positive for the city.

Photo Credit: Ivy Dawned Flickr.com CC by SA 2.0

In researching the new plant, Destiny was distraught to learn that incinerators pose a serious threat to human health. The city's latest waste management system would emit 240 pounds of mercury per year in a community that already suffered some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country. People living near waste incinerators are regularly exposed to toxic dioxin emissions, which can cause cancer, brain damage, and are harmful to many of the body's regulatory systems.

Destiny decided to fight the plans for the new incinerator, and started a 4-year campaign in her school to warn the school board and members of the community of the risks and prevent it from coming to their neighborhood. Despite the odds, her "Free Your Voice" campaign group triumphed, and in March the Maryland Department of Energy declared the construction permits invalid. For her efforts, Destiny was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, a prize awarded to only 6 people in the world and largely regarded as the "Nobel prize for the environment." Destiny's work brought to light many of the problems with incinerators, prompting us to take a second look at these "green" alternatives to municipal waste management.

"Waste to Energy" incinerators sound like a great solution—the trash disappears and we harness energy—but the reality is more complicated than that. When examined closely, its clear that incinerators are environmentally dangerous. As Destiny learned, incinerators produce incredible amounts of pollution. Modern incinerators are equipped with various types of scrubber and filter technologies intended to reduce emissions, but they are still unable to completely eliminate pollutants. Even taking into consideration the pollution control equipment used by incinerators, they release even more pollution into the air than coal plants. The pollutants that are captured by filters still pose an environmental problem since they have to be disposed of in landfills. This ash from incinerators often contains dangerous heavy metals, which, when placed in landfills, then end up polluting our air, soil, and water.

The energy-producing capabilities are often thought to mitigate the effects of this pollution, but the energy created by incinerators is not the kind of energy that needs to be produced because is not renewable. It is derived from the waste of products that are created from finite resources. This creates a demand for more waste that then discourages recycling, which is so necessary to conserving our invaluable natural resources.

So far, there is no easy solution to the problem of waste management, but it is clear that incinerators are not the cure-all that they were once expected to be. Ultimately, it all comes down to choosing sustainability and recycling over waste. Incinerators encourage people to throw things away and don't provide incentive for our society to change its habits of mass consumption. Burning stuff that we no longer want is not a good solution. So much energy and resources go into making the things we throw away every day, and much of that is reusable. To safely and sustainably move away from incinerators and reduce the burden on landfills, society needs to buy less and recycle more.

Planet Aid is helping support this mission by providing convenient textile recycling bins across the country, so that clothes and shoes don't end up in the landfill or the incinerator. Find a yellow bin near you!