Mass Burn Incinerators: Definition and Issues

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  • 0:07 What are Mass Burn…
  • 1:11 How Mass Burn…
  • 3:30 Issues with Mass Burn…
  • 4:40 Environmental Concerns
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

In this lesson, we will explore the process of using extreme heat to dispose of waste. We will also investigate the issues associated with this method of waste management.

What Are Mass Burn Incinerators?

Next time you drag your trashcan out to the road or place your trash bags on the curb, take a minute and look at the amount of waste you or your household produces each week. Is it one bag, two or maybe more? Each year in the United States, people produce nearly 220 million tons of municipal solid waste. Due to this large amount of waste produced, there are several methods of waste management that are implemented.

One waste management strategy is to use mass burn incinerators, which are large facilities where waste is burned at very high temperatures. When these facilities were first created, they were very basic, with the waste being burned and the ash being transported to landfills for disposal. Over the years, mass burn incinerators have become much more complex facilities. Most mass burn incinerators that are still in use are now referred to as waste-to-energy facilities because they harness the heat produced from burning the waste to create energy.

How Mass Burn Incinerators Work

Waste is first transported to the mass burn incinerator and inspected. Recyclables and items larger than couches are removed. The waste then passes through strong magnets that remove metals that can be sold. The remaining waste is then shredded to create pieces less than six inches. Once all sorting and shredding is complete, the waste is moved into a furnace with temperatures over 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit! The smaller pieces of waste burn in the air, while larger pieces burn as they move along a belt. While the incinerator is on, water is being circulated throughout the walls of the boiler. This process creates stream that is then used to drive turbines that produce energy.

When the waste has been completely burned, the ash, known as bottom ash, is processed to remove any remaining metals. The combustion gas that is produced during the burning of the waste is moved through a structure called a scrubber, where the gas is chemically treated to remove hazardous components and neutralize noxious gases, such as sulfur dioxide. During this process, many gases are turned into water and salts. These particulates that form are referred to as fly ash. The remaining gas and the fly ash are then passed through a structure known as the baghouse, which filters out the particulates. This last step lowers the amount of pollutants entering the air. The remaining gas is released through smokestacks and the fly ash collected is combined with the bottom ash from the waste and transported to a landfill.

As of 2013, there are 86 mass burn incinerators in the United States, and, on average, each facility processes around 1 million tons of municipal solid waste each year. Most facilities also recycle around 40,000 tons of metal, which can be sold for profit. The facilities that convert steam to energy are able to produce 65 megawatts of power. This number might not seem like much, but that much energy can provide electricity to power around 65,000 homes!

Issues with Mass Burn Incinerators

Although mass burn incinerators have been an effective method for reducing the volume of waste that enters landfills, there are several issues associated with these facilities.

First, finding a suitable location for mass burn incinerators is difficult because people do not want to live near them. They are often placed in industrial areas, where people do not have to see them or do not notice the odor or smokestacks.

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