Incineration is Not Recycling

State and local governments are becoming worried with the news about China banning lower quality commodity imports and are looking for new methods to deal with their solid waste issues.

The problem is that there is a lot of confusion as to what this all means and it has opened the door for the spread of misinformation leading to some outright irresponsible decisions by local government. 

Why does this matter? 
Valuable commodity recyclable material is being swept into collection systems that ultimately end with incineration and not recycling. 

  • With landfill costs increasing along with the costs of curbside recyclable collection, many waste-to-energy advocates and companies are stepping in to offer what government wants to hear but what industry knows is too good to be true.
  •   A state senate leader from a U.S. western state recently told ISRI of his visit to a German waste-to-energy facility whose owner claimed to be able to solve essentially all of the solid waste problems in the U.S. without any government subsidies.

    The company sold the senator on its proprietary technology that separates solid waste from recyclable material, which it claims can then be “sold as a genuine high-quality raw material” for the manufacturing process.

    The senator was convinced and indicated he felt the U.S. recycling industry would not be impacted at all if this technology went mainstream in the U.S. as he was led to believe it is in Germany.

The Problem:
If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, well then….

  • Incineration is not a form of recycling. Collecting and burning recyclables is not recycling in practice or intent.


These are waste-to-energy proposals being mislabeled as recycling in order to generate public support by citizens who want to recycle.


  • Recycling offers critical economic and environmental benefits, which incineration literally destroys.


Once the commodity is incinerated, it is gone forever never to be reused again, thus increasing the need for virgin material. This is simply irresponsible.


  • Recycling is a series of activities in which material is processed into specification-grade commodities, and consumed as raw-material feedstock, in lieu of virgin materials, in the manufacture of new products.


The series of activities that make up recycling, include the collection, processing, brokering, and subsequent consumption of industrial, end-of-life and obsolete scrap, as well as the process of transforming used products, whole or in part, into reusable commodities.


  • Waste-to-Energy proposals that claim to remove recyclable materials typically focus primarily on extracting metal commodity materials after the incineration process, at a much reduced value than would be obtained if sorted prior to being put into the furnace.

Why it’s important: 
While waste-to-energy technology serves a specific purpose in limited instances, it is not the solution to localities’ troubles with solid waste and low quality recyclable issues. 

  • The reason China is misclassifying some recyclables as solid waste in its import bans is a problem of quality.
  • Citizens want to recycle and government needs to invest in its public education and sorting programs.

How can ISRI Members Help?
You can help by being vigilant in your communities and speaking up when you hear of proposals to invest in waste-to-energy facilities and programs. Simply burning the problem away is not the solution.

Contact: David Wagger, (202) 662-8533


Have Questions?