Waste incineration

There’s no doubt that the burning of waste has been common throughout history. However, it wasn’t until 1874, in Leeds (England), that the first urban waste incinerator was built, due to a cholera epidemic. Alfred Fryer was the inventor who designed the incinerator for purifying organic matter and, curiously, he called the invention: Destructor.

Waste incineration is a well-known and popular alternative for treating the waste that we generate by means of destruction, waste-to-energy or energy recovery.


In an incineration facility, controlled combustion occurs at high temperatures (over 850ºC) to treat the mixed or general fraction as well as rejections from other treatment facilities, such as those from packaging facilities or Ecoparks (material that can’t be recycled). All of the material that enters the incineration facility is transformed into ashes, slag, and gases. The energy that is produced during combustion or waste burning can be converted into electricity (heating water and with a turbine) or used for air conditioning (heating and cooling).

Waste is burned in a controlled manner in an incinerator to produce energy

Not all waste is burned at the incineration facilities as some of the materials do not reach their melting point or residual products are created, among which:

    • Slag or bottom ashes. This is the material that remains unburned in the oven after combustion, such as ceramics, soil, glass, metal objects, among others. This represents 20-25%, in weight, of the incinerated waste. Slag is often reused in other sectors, and non-metallic slag is, when possible, used as filler material. It is qualified as non-hazardous waste.
  • Fly ashes (volatile materials). They represent around 2-6%, in weight, of the incinerated waste. This waste is more dangerous and polluting than the previous types and is collected separately to be taken to a hazardous landfill. It is classified as a hazardous waste.

Incineration facilities belong to the energy recovery facilities or waste-to-energy group, although there are other processes through which energy is obtained, such as:

  • Incinerators
  • Anaerobic digestion in biological mechanical treatment facilities or MBT (Ecoparks)
  • Fuels derived from waste: material which is prepared and selected and subsequently replaces a fossil fuel
  • Landfills or controlled deposits: biogas is obtained from the fermentation of organic matter

It is worth mentioning the latest generation of waste-to-energy, such as the transformation of waste into fuel or RDF (Refuse-derived fuel), which can be used, for example, in cement facilities; and the production of ethanol or diesel from waste.

Of the total waste generated in 2012, in Catalonia, 16% was incinerated; in Spain, 10%; in Europe, it was it is 25% (over double), and in the main cities of around the world, 17%. Several incineration facilities are available to treat all of this waste: 4 in Catalonia;[1]; a total of 10 in Spain;[2]; and more than 400 throughout Europe.[3]

Let’s see the FOR and AGAINST arguments in the following posts.

Want to know more?

 The book Stop garbage. The truth about recycling, Alex Pascual, February 2019

► Sant Adrià incineration facility (MUSICAL)

[1]. PINFRECAT: Territorial plan for municipal waste management infrastructures in Catalonia 2013-2020

[2]. Annual report 2013 Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente, Spanish Government.

[3]. “Energy recovery, a necessary link? http://www.laboratorioderesiduos.es

7 thoughts on “Waste incineration”

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