Saturdays with Shavara
Feel the burn; The Environmental impacts of open burning trash
Hello green friends and thank you for joining me for another Saturday! The HOT topic I’m going to cover on this glorious Saturday is one I have been BURNING to cover… pun most definitely intended, and that topic is; the environmental impact of open burning trash. This trash disposal method is not only a national environmental issue, but one that’s found globally. On average roughly 40% of the worlds waste is eliminated by open burning. This practice of open burning waste is prevalent because it’s fast, effective in eliminating waste and very inexpensive; however, I must point out that it is also incredibly bad for the environment.
Many areas of the world simply can’t afford the efficient incinerators that are necessary to eliminate most of the emissions caused by burning waste. Very rural areas of the United States and developing countries tend to burn their waste openly because they lack efficient waste collection infrastructures or lack the funds to dispose of waste properly. I would like to mention that open burning and controlled waste burning are two very different waste disposals methods. Controlled waste burning utilizes highly effective incinerators and is a necessary method in dealing with specific types of waste; for example, hazardous and medical waste. Open burning, on the other hand is the burning of waste at much lower temperatures (around 250 degrees Celsius - 700 degrees Celsius) and most often takes place illegally, unregulated and in open uncontrolled environments. The two methods of burning waste have very different impacts because ultimately controlled waste burning falls under scrutiny from environmental agencies and strict regulations. Open burning can take place whenever Joe Schmoe decides to light his trash on fire in an empty field … times a million.
NCAR scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, was the first to study and report on the environmental impact of open burning waste in 2013. Her study uncovered some startlingly statistics associated with notoriously unregulated open burning, which are as follows; 1.1 billion tons of waste is burned in open spaces, contributing to 29%of global anthropogenic emissions (anthropogenic meaning- caused by humans), 10%of mercury emissions occur because of open burning and 40% of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; a complicated way of saying pollution that can cause lung/ neurological diseases, heart attacks and some cancers. I also want to note that 40-50% of garbage is made up of some form of carbon, which means that carbon dioxide is a major gas emitted when waste is burned. The fact that open burning tends to take place in rural areas and on private residences makes it incredibly difficult to document every instance of open burning. Consequently, the data necessary to determine how large of an environmental impact burning waste is becomes quite skewed when all instances cannot be accounted for. The other pesky issue is the types of materials burned and the toxins/pollutants that are then released, which affects ground soil, water supplies and of course the air that we breath.
In more developed countries there is less open burning recorded because garbage disposal is more readily available to the general population. There are a number of waste disposal methods in the United States, and here in Oklahoma we have both traditional waste collection service providers; Waste Management, Republic Services, Waste Connection that dispose of waste to landfills, and also Covanta; located in Tulsa, Oklahoma which utilizes incinerators. Covanta prides itself on not being “your grandfathers’ incinerator” because not only does it burn waste, but its highly advanced incinerator is designed to recover the value in waste. The Tulsa facility processes 1,125 tons of waste per day and generates up to 298,000 pounds per hour of steam. The steam that is generated is used to power a turbine generator that produces 16.8 mega- watts of clean renewable energy, which is most often sold to the Public Service Company of Oklahoma aka PSO. On a national scale Covanta processes approximately 21 million tons of municipal solid waste each year, which conserves over 25 million cubic yards of landfill space and generates a million mega-watt hours of electricity, which according to Covanta is enough clean renewable energy to power more than one million homes in the United States. Companies like Covanta are required to follow certain environmental regulations in order to ensure that the carbon footprint of their waste removal process is minimal. Their boilers are specially designed to ensure complete combustion and recovery of energy using pollution control equipment to scrub and filter emissions, which prevents the release into our environment.
Effective waste disposal is not cheap by any means, and impoverished countries truly don’t have the funds to provide some of the options discussed earlier; however, it is important to understand that what we aren’t paying for monetarily today will have future generations paying for later. When any area of the world is practicing such methods, we’re all effected because we all call earth home. I think the biggest take away from this is that separate actions may not seem like they are having an impact on our environment; i.e. burning a pile of trash in your backyard, but when this action is multiplied by millions of others the effects are immeasurable. The goal for us all should be to act with care and be responsible stewards of our planet. Only when we act with the best interest of our environment will we see the positive change we often look for others to achieve for us. By now you all are well aware that the three R’s can literally be applied to any environmental issue; Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, when and where you can.
KOB’s Very own Blog Contributor