Why can’t we just burn our rubbish?

If we could think of new ways of getting rid of the mountains of rubbish we produce every year, we’d use them.

Millions of tonnes of British rubbish goes into the ground every year in a wasteful process known as landfill. We’d rather not do it, because landfill sites are filling up fast, it can cause dangerous pollution, and the type of waste that gets buried can sometimes be easily recycled.

In fact, we only recycle about 45% of our rubbish, and we need this figure to be much, much higher.

So why can’t we just burn rubbish instead of burying it?

The fact is that in some circumstances, we can. But burning your rubbish in your back garden is about the worst thing you can do.

Burning things creates gasses, some of which are dangerous to the environment and are the cause of climate change. The two most common gasses released are carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, the first being a greenhouse gas, and the second being highly toxic.

Depending what else you burn leads to the release of other dangerous chemicals into the air. Plastics will produce toxins and acids that are dangerous when breathed in; and terrible for plant and animal life when they return to earth as rain.

Your neighbours will probably complain if you keep burning rubbish, and it won’t be long before you get into trouble with the law for acting anti-socially!

When is it safe to burn rubbish?

There’s a process called “energy recovery“, in which companies are allowed to burn rubbish to generate electricity.

Typically, it’s a big plant on the outskirts of town, where rubbish is taken and sorted. Waste which can be recycled is taken away again to be reused, while the rest is sent to the furnaces.

But what about all those toxic gasses? There’s some controversy here, because some of these plants are still pumping out pollutants. But they argue this is in a good cause, as the burning waste at least creates the heat to generate useful electricity.

Other, more modern plants, have filters which extract smoke pollutants, and the plume you see coming from the chimney is vapour from the cooling process.

Burning waste as energy recovery still isn’t perfect. Burned waste is lost completely, along with any recycling benefits it may still have; and environmental groups argue they still pollute.

Yet, some say it’s still cleaner than burying it all in the ground.