Many households, especially those located in rural areas, prefer to burn their trash rather than paying a fee for waste collection or taking it to a recycling facility. Paper incineration is touted by many as a “greener” alternative to recycling, while others say that burning only releases more toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Which side is right? The answer may be more nuanced than you would think.
The Downside of Burning
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, households that burn their trash are not only harming their own health, they're putting chemicals and toxins into the earth, water and air around them. The smoke caused by burning can cause rashes, nausea or headaches, and may increase the risk of heart disease, asthma and emphysema. Burning also produces dioxin, a highly toxic chemical. Household burning can actually produce higher levels of dioxin than industrial incinerators. This is because the EPA has strict guidelines on industrial burning that requires them to reduce their dioxin emissions. Also, most paper and other household waste is burned in barrels or firepits. Burning at ground level increases the likelihood of dioxins seeping into the earth and groundwater.
Recycling may not be the best option either, however. According to a report in the British science journal “Science Focus,” recycling paper may actually harm the environment in several key ways. First, recycling plants are “on the grid," meaning they use energy generated from fossil fuels like coal. Burning coal releases greenhouse gases into the environment, contributing to global warming. The recycling process also involves the removal of ink on printed paper, and many of these inks are made with metals like chromium, zinc, or lead, which can be harmful if introduced into water supplies. Paper also contains bleach and other chemicals that are released during the recycling process.
The garbage-burning trend began in the late 1970s, when consumer recycling was still in its infancy. The '70's also brought an increased awareness of environmental issues, and "garbage-to-energy" burning was seen as a revolutionary new eco-friendly approach to waste control. This was because the burning paper and other materials produced steam, which could be used to power electrical generators. Burning, therefore, does solve two big environmental problems: what to do with waste, and how to generate energy. And while recycling paper may produce some unhealthy by-products, some facilities are finding a way to reuse that inky sludge as fuel, thus reducing their dependence on "grid" power.
The Bottom Line
In spite of their flaws, both disposal methods are better than simply throwing paper away. Thirty-three percent of trees that are cut down are used to make paper products, and most are not replanted. In fact, the EPA reported that paper mills are among the world's biggest polluters. Decomposing paper also produces the greenhouse gas methane. So burn or recycle if you wish – the choice is up to you. Just don't throw your paper away.