Trash Incineration in the U.S.

Unless you’re someone who lives near a trash incinerator, you may not have known that they’re used. Or, if you do know of their existence, it’s likely due to the news coverage they’ve gained in recent years. In Europe, incinerators are viewed in a positive light, and they’re used all over the continent. However, in the U.S., incinerators are often viewed in a negative light. So, what’s the deal with incinerators? Why are they used, and why are opinions regarding them so polarizing in different parts of the world?

Why is Trash Incinerated?

Trash actually isn’t incinerated simply to get rid of it. There are two main reasons for the incineration of trash: volume reduction and energy production. Each of these reasons for incinerating trash are vitally important to the protection of the environment in the long run. And although incinerating waste isn’t the ideal solution, it mitigates the issues caused by some of our old waste disposal methods which have yet to be phased out of use.

Volume Reduction

trash landfill

The primary reason incineration is used, especially in Europe where space is limited, is to reduce the volume of the waste being disposed. The ash left over from the incineration process takes up much less space in landfills, meaning they don’t reach capacity as quickly. And when landfills don’t reach capacity, less new landfills are required.

The incineration process reduces the volume of trash by approximately 90%. Additionally, this process reduces the toxic residue associated with waste, meaning the 10% volume remaining at the end is better for the environment than it would have been at the start. But what about the trash which doesn’t incinerate? Ferrous and non-ferrous metals can be recovered after incineration and are set aside for recycling.

Energy Production

Energy production is the secondary use for waste incineration. Not every incinerator is what is known as a waste-to-energy (or energy-from-waste) facility, but those which are can produce a large amount of power. Such facilities use heat and steam to generate power. Just 1 ton of waste can produce ⅔ MWh (megawatt-hours) of electrical energy and 2 MWh of heat energy. To put that in perspective, incinerating just 1 ton of waste can power the average American home for 3.2 months.

Where is Trash Incinerated?

In the U.S. alone there are 86 incinerators spread across 25 states. Together, these facilities incinerate 29 million tons of garbage each year, which accounts for 12% of the total waste in the country.

Chester and Camden

Trash incineration

The two incinerators local to the Philadelphia region are located in Chester and Camden. At the Chester facility, 3,500 tons of waste are incinerated each day, which produces an average of 87 MW/h (megawatts per hour, not megawatt-hours) in electrical energy. Over the course of a year, this facility produces 645,000 MWh which are used to power 70,000 homes. Additionally, 60,000 tons of metals are removed from landfills to be recycled.

By comparison, Camden’s facility only goes through 1,050 tons of waste per day, producing an average of 21 MW/h in electrical energy.

Recyclable Incineration

More recently, recyclables have also been incinerated in the U.S. The reason for this is due to China and other East Asian countries reducing the amount of recycling and other waste they import. This means there are more recyclables in the country than are able to be processed, which is what leads to a portion of those recyclables being incinerated instead. This situation isn’t ideal, but as much material is recycled as possible, and this is the best option available until the U.S. is able to process more recyclables.

Environmental Impact of Incineration

Incineration produces less greenhouse gases than coal or oil for the same amount of energy production. However, it produces more greenhouse gases than natural gas energy production. So right away we can see that it’s not the worst option available when it comes to generating energy. But, once you also consider the energy source, it becomes clear that waste incineration is a better option than the other combustible alternatives. Coal, oil, and natural gas are all finite resources which are being used up. By contrast, waste incineration is lessening the effect landfills have on the environment.

Waste-to-Energy incinerator

It’s also important to keep in mind that pollutant byproducts of incineration are strictly governed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Baghouse filters are used to extract the harmful particles out of the gas which is expelled into the atmosphere, keeping their levels well below what is mandated by the federal government. The Chester facility alone uses 1,440 bag filters and a spray dry absorber for each boiler. What’s left is bottom ash residue, which is non-hazardous and can be safely disposed of in landfills.

Additionally, cities using incinerators have higher rates of recycling than those which don’t. It’s currently unclear why this is, but it may be due to the fact that cities with incinerators located in them are more aware of what happens to their garbage once it is thrown out.


There are two main reasons for trash incineration: waste volume reduction and energy production. When these reasons for incineration are considered, incineration actually turns out to be one of the better ways waste can be disposed of — although recycling is always preferred. Trash is incinerated across the U.S. (and world), including within the Philadelphia region. And the environmental impact of incineration is strictly monitored by the federal government.

Accurate Recycling

Contact Accurate today if your business is in need of trash or recycling disposal services. We service the entire Philadelphia region and will pick up your trash or recycling on a schedule which works for you.