Wow, we never saw this coming: 'Trash burning worldwide significantly worsens air pollution'

BOULDER — Unregulated trash burning around the globe is pumping far more pollution into the atmosphere than shown by official records. A new study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that more than 40 percent of the world’s garbage is burned in such fires, emitting gases and particles that can substantially affect human health and climate change.

The new study provides the first rough estimates, on a country-by-country basis, of pollutants such as particulates, carbon monoxide, and mercury that are emitted by the fires. Such pollutants have been linked to serious medical issues.

The researchers also estimated emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas produced by human activity.

Unlike emissions from commercial incinerators, the emissions from burning trash in open fires often go unreported to environmental agencies and are left out of many national inventories of air pollution. For that reason, they are not incorporated into policy making.

“Air pollution across much of the globe is significantly underestimated because no one is tracking open-fire burning of trash,” said NCAR scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, lead author of the new study. “The uncontrolled burning of trash is a major source of pollutants, and it’s one that should receive more attention.”

Quantifying the extent of burning trash may change how policy makers track emissions, as well as how scientists incorporate air pollution into computer models used to study the atmosphere.

Because trash burning is unregulated and unmonitored, Wiedinmyer said that actual emissions could be larger or smaller than the study’s estimates by a factor of two. Still, the analysis represents the most comprehensive effort to date to account for emissions from trash burning.

The new study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, was funded by the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR’s sponsor. It was co-authored by scientists from the University of Montana and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who were also involved in measuring the composition of trash-burning emissions.

Shrouded in smoke

Open burning of trash, as seen here in General Santos, Philippines, is a global phenomenon that has significant effects on air quality. (Photo courtesy Global Environment Facility.)

Trash burning is a global phenomenon. But it is most prevalent in developing countries where there are fewer trash disposal facilities, such as landfills and incinerators.

The amount of garbage burned in remote villages and crowded megacities is likely on the rise, as more people worldwide are consuming more goods. The trash often contains discarded plastics and electronics as well as traditional materials such as food scraps and wood.

Wiedinmyer began wondering about the impact of burning trash while visiting remote villages in Ghana. The villages were shrouded in smoke caused in part from trash fires that smoldered all day.

To estimate emissions from trash fires, Wiedinmyer and her co-authors compared population figures and per capita waste production with official tallies of trash disposal for each country in the world. They estimated that 1.1 billion tons (1 billion metric tons), or 41 percent, of the total waste generated worldwide is disposed of through unregulated burning every year.

The countries that produce the most total waste, according to the study’s methods, are heavily populated countries with various levels of industrial development: China, the United States, India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany. But the study concluded that the nations with the greatest emissions from trash burning are populous developing countries: China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, and Turkey.

By analyzing consumption patterns in each country, the research team then estimated the type and amount of pollutants from the fires.

The study concluded that as much as 29 percent of human-related global emissions of small particulates (less than 2.5 microns in diameter) come from the fires, as well as 10 percent of mercury and 40 percent of a group of gases known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These pollutants have been linked to such significant health impacts as decreased lung function, neurological disorders, cancer, and heart attacks.

Trash burning in some countries accounts for particularly high quantities of certain types of pollutants. In China, for example, 22 percent of larger particles (those up to 10 microns in diameter) come from burning garbage.

The global impact on greenhouse gas emissions appears to be less, though still significant, with burning trash producing an estimated 5 percent of human-related carbon dioxide emissions. (By comparison, the Kyoto Protocol strove for a global 5 percent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions from industrialized countries.) In certain developing countries—such as Lesotho, Burundi, Mali, Somalia, and Sri Lanka—the trash burning produces more carbon dioxide than is tallied in official inventories. This discrepancy can be important in international negotiations over reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Wiedinmyer said the next step in her research will be to track the pollutants to determine where they are having the greatest impacts.

“This study was a first step to put some bounds on the magnitude of this issue,” she said. “The next step is to look at what happens when these pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere—where are they being transported and which populations are being most affected.”

About the article

Title: Global Emissions of Trace Gases, Particulate Matter, and Hazardous Air Pollutants from Open Burning of Domestic Waste

Authors: Christine Wiedinmyer, Robert J. Yokelson, and Brian K. Gullett

Publication: Environmental Science and Technology

doi: 10.1021/es502250z


The open burning of waste, whether at individual residences, businesses, or dump sites, is a large source of air pollutants. These emissions, however, are not included in many current emission inventories used for chemistry and climate modeling applications. This paper presents the first comprehensive and consistent estimates of the global emissions of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, reactive trace gases, and toxic compounds from open waste burning. Global emissions of CO2 from open waste burning are relatively small compared to total anthropogenic CO2; however, regional CO2 emissions, particularly in many developing countries in Asia and Africa, are substantial. Further, emissions of reactive trace gases and particulate matter from open waste burning are more significant on regional scales. For example, the emissions of PM10 from open domestic waste burning in China is equivalent to 22% of China’s total reported anthropogenic PM10 emissions. The results of the emissions model presented here suggest that emissions of many air pollutants are significantly underestimated in current inventories because open waste burning is not included, consistent with studies that compare model results with available observations.

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george e. smith
August 26, 2014 6:19 pm

Well if you think that BURNING GARBAGE is a big contribution to global pollution, you should just see what NOT BURNING GARBAGE does for global pollution.

Richard deSousa
August 26, 2014 6:19 pm

I’d bet the climate scientists will jump on this news to proclaim that’s the reason why the temperatures haven’t risen because of the smoke and airborne particulates have blocked the sun incoming energy.

August 26, 2014 6:24 pm

Models do studies? What a load of cr a p.These people are truly gonzo.

August 26, 2014 6:25 pm

No way, the real pollution is caused by teenage drivers in America doing burn outs in their diesel trucks.
Sarc off.
How much did this study cost us?

Evan Jones
August 26, 2014 6:29 pm

It is illegal to burn trash in NYC. I wake up far too often to the stink of burning trash. (There is a government-owned building two doors down, you see.)

Reply to  Evan Jones
August 27, 2014 10:30 am

They’re not burning trash they’re burning hard drives.

August 26, 2014 6:42 pm

Please people quit burning your trash. Please box and forward to the address below.
IPCC Secretariat
C/O World Meteorological Organization
7bis Avenue de la Paix
C.P. 2300
CH- 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland
Thank you for helping to save Mother Gaia.

August 26, 2014 6:50 pm

“…unregulated burning…” Keywords. Need more regulations and more grant money.

John Andrews
August 26, 2014 7:02 pm

There was a land fill near my house where commercial trash haulers could dispose of waste. The city charged them, but not homeowners. They could dump their waste for free. Then the city changed the rules and started charging everyone a fee. Within a few years the land near my house was a dump. We organized a cleanup weekend and collected trash from vacant property in the neighborhood. We collected a pile about 6 to 8 feet high and about 75 feet long. The city hauled it away and changed the fee structure to allow free dumping for homeowners.
A possible solution to the burning of trash is availble information on inexpensive efficient trash burning methods. If they can, people will choose the best available method to dispose of waste all by themselves. Unfortunately, too often that is tossing it out the car window (actually or figuratively).

Lil Fella from OZ
August 26, 2014 7:02 pm

This is just a diversion (tactic) from the real problem, the propaganda associated with AGW.

August 26, 2014 7:03 pm

Clearly, this dreadful gap in “pollution quantification” requires an international organization, treaty, bureau, conference, and innumerable subcommittees to “raise awareness” and mobilize scientists, policy makers, and stakeholders to “provide critical metrification to TOxic and POisonous Discharges from Unregulated Refuse IMmolation Sites” (TOPODURIMS).
Expect high-intensity pontificating, chest-thumping, resolution-eering – along with clamors for ACTION – from the usual UN suspects, NGO-enviro types, Seth Borenstein, and Skeptical Science-type blog-oids.

August 26, 2014 7:23 pm

How about dioxins?
I have a link, now long dead and cannot find quickly, to a paper discussing the production of dioxins in the small scale burning of domestic trash in NY State. I can’t quote you a figure, since it was a number of years since I read the paper, but it doesn’t take many rural Joes in NY state burning their weekly rubbish in a 55 gallon drums to equal the output of a civic trash to energy plant.
Yes, the problem is large, and by its nature hard to get a handle on, 41% of trash worldwide burned in an unscientific and unregulated manner, scary, but not completely surprising.
Nobody likes paying for their trash, but it’s actually quite important, because almost nobody can actually measure for themselves all of the potential harms that might come from it’s improper disposal. Therefore some need for domestic and international ‘standards of conduct’ [no selfish cheating in other words] – in the vernacular: regulations.
The weak point in our free market system is that it does not [yet] do an adequate job of capturing the true cost of ownership of many products – that is their ultimate decommissioning, recycling, or disposal.
Work yet to be done.

August 26, 2014 7:24 pm

Don’t know how practical this technology is, but one high-tech solution that was touted back in 2008 was the waste to energy plasma incinerator plants. The article below admits that no net energy is produced, and that the idea is simply a means of getting rid of the trash. Sounds extremely energy intensive.

Mark Luhman
August 26, 2014 7:33 pm

Actually compared to burying garbage as opposed open burning creates far more problems. Certified incinerators should be the preferred method to depose of garbage, next open burning, the worst method is burying. The fire turns unstable compounds into oxides which are relatively stable so you end up with compounds that do not leach into ground water. When you bury something it never get the chance to oxidase. This was found out in Minnesota when the land fills starting to leach unstable compounds into ground water and the unstable compounds were not staying in the landfills. When someone though to check the old dumps where there was open burning up to about forty years ago, guess what no leaching and little evidence of any pollution. The world of unintended consequences often bites greenies in the butt, but they will never admit it.

August 26, 2014 7:33 pm

A new UN FCCC Summary draft has made it to the web.
Likely reports as the one mentioned here are propaganda instigated by the UN to enhance obedience by citizens of member nations toward the UN and nothing more.
Here in the USA perhaps Obama would be open to ‘Perestroika’ within the Obama Regime.
Not likely as Obama is in office.

Leon Brozyna
August 26, 2014 8:06 pm

Cloistered environmental scientists run smack into the real world, with levels of poverty they never imagine and where the small amounts of garbage that remains gets burned and where recycling isn’t something that’s fashionably chic, but a necessity.

Rob Potter
August 26, 2014 8:52 pm

CD (@CD153) August 26, 2014 at 7:24 pm
Don’t know how practical this technology is, but one high-tech solution that was touted back in 2008 was the waste to energy plasma incinerator plants. The article below admits that no net energy is produced, and that the idea is simply a means of getting rid of the trash. Sounds extremely energy intensive.
It works and does actually result in net energy surplus. Google Plasco – they have a pilot in Ottawa and are trying to get a full scale plant funded. (Too many links to add to a comment.)
Problem is capital investment when compared to a dump – have to have some other reason for doing this than ordinary waste disposal or the numbers don’t add up.

Ed Rad P.E.
Reply to  Rob Potter
August 27, 2014 1:41 pm

From 1989 to 1997, I was an engineer at a facility that had a demonstration scale plasma heated waste incinerator that we operated for thousands of hours treating various types of wastes including municipal waste streams. Our actual research and development efforts pretty well established that a 500 kW plasma torch could process about 350 pounds an hour. That established a power to mass ratio of about 1.4 kW per pound. So, for a typical municipal solid waste processing example of 3,000 ton/day, the energy needed from the plasma is about 8,400,000 kW, or 8,400 MW per day or 350 MW per hour.
On the other side of the energy balance, municipal solid waste has a gross energy content of around 5,000 Btu per pound. The 3,000 ton/day of input trash thus equates to about 1,250 million Btu per hour of gross energy. Based on average conversion efficiencies for generating electricity from a heat source, the 1,250 million Btu/hr could generate about 143,000 kW or 143 MW. Therefore, 350 MW of plasma input energy produces at the most 143 MW of electrical energy, or 207 MW less energy than input electrical energy.
No net energy generation is why plasma will never be used for converting trash to energy…

August 26, 2014 9:44 pm

But the worst is dumping trash into the open ocean.
At least, ANY land-dumped “pile” of trash is accessible immediately and easily for recycling; EVERY element that went into the dump is is still there in one location ready to process. And most of them are already refined from the original impure “ore” state and so are easier to get the second time.
Dumped in the water – as what New York and New Jersey did for decades? That refined and isolated resource is lost forever.

August 27, 2014 12:19 am

Actually it is perfectly possible to burn thrash and use the energy produced for heating and electricity. And without any appreciable pollution problems. However it does take specially designed (large) incinerators and a well-functioning logistics system to haul the thrash. One ton of thrash is about equal to 1.5 barrels of oil energy-wise. One drawback is that the energy density of thrash is low, so it works best for producing hot water for area heating and less well for electricity. For really effective production of electricity some “boosting” by fossil fuel is usually required. The ashes are safe as landfill. In Sweden many towns have built such incineraters, in fact so many that we now have a thrash shortage and are importing the stuff from e. g. Hamburg. One problem is that thrash used for energy in this way must be stored under cover until burned. Rain lowers the net energy content too much.

M Courtney
August 27, 2014 1:19 am

Imperfect burning of any old thing that’s found lying around does sound like a hazard to me.
Environmental regulations should exist for this.

Keith Willshaw
August 27, 2014 2:13 am

Fluidized bed furnaces provide the the technology for efficient incineration and if properly designed
can provide useful quantities of electricity. Domestic garbage contains a high percentage of combustible materials and with minimal pre-treatment, mainly the mechanical separation of metals makes an excellent fuel. Back in the early 1980’s I was working for the R&D department well known company producing industrial boilers and we had a rather efficient prototype for such fluidized bed devices. This was totally ignored by the UK authorities as the nationalized electricity industry was not interested in small scale generation and the nationalized coal industry was dead against competition. The nail in the coffin was the cease and desist order from the local council who argued that the local byelaws forbade burning rubbish except in the council owned incinerator. That factory is no more, they sold the technology to a US company before closing down.

M Courtney
Reply to  Keith Willshaw
August 27, 2014 2:23 am

The National Coal Board also had similar technology developed to pilot plant level around that time for the more efficient burning of coal.
My father was working on it at the time. He may have more information.
The UK Government closed it down because, well – Thatcher and coal miners.

Reply to  M Courtney
August 27, 2014 3:03 am

M Courtney:
There are several fluidised bed combustion (FBC) technologies.
The US circulating fluidised bed combustion (CFBC) technology was used to upgrade dirty and inefficient coal-fired power stations in Eastern Europe following collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the UK’s Coal Research Establishment (CRE) we did much work on pressurised fluidised bed combustion (PFBC) technology. (For example, I invented the material and the manufacturing process for the Foseco candle filter). In the context of the comment by Keith Willshaw, we demonstrated the extreme fuel flexibility of PFBC by burning wet sewage as a fuel. A commercial PFBC power station was constructed in Cottbus, Germany.
But I suspect you are referring to the Air Blown Gasification Combined Cycle (ABGC) technology. At CRE we developed and demonstrated at full scale each component of an ABGC power station and used the obtained data to develop a computer model of an assembled ABGC power station. The model indicated greater efficiency of a coal-fired ABGC plant than the efficiency of a natural-gas-fired combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power station. The next stage was to construct a demonstration power station at full scale but the coal industry including CRE was then shut and, thus, the development at CRE was abandoned.
In all cases, adoption of these FBC technologies is inhibited by the borrowing costs of novelty risk. The novelty risk is much lower for upgrades and developments of the tried and tested pulverised fuel (PF) coal-fired power stations. There has to be a large and urgent need assisted by political will to enable the adoption of unproved FBC systems: these unusual conditions existed for the replacement of conventional power station boilers by CFBC units in Eastern Europe.

Robin Hewitt
August 27, 2014 3:09 am

We have a fancy new incinerator now but our household rubbish and some radioactive spoil used to go to the Beddingham Landfill Site. When it was closed they covered it with plastic then tapped off the methane to generate just shy of 5MW of electricity.

Reply to  Robin Hewitt
August 27, 2014 3:46 am

The way to go. One dump in California even has an 18hole golf course on top and methane power from below. Great idea.

Reply to  johnmarshall
August 27, 2014 6:18 am

Does Obama know about this course? Perfect photo op.

August 27, 2014 3:44 am

Correctly burnt rubbish will generate power but just burning it outside is a problem. Unfortunately the more rules about rubbish and cost to follow those rules will increase the pirate burning to get rid of it causing greater problems.

August 27, 2014 4:58 am
Gary Pearse
August 27, 2014 5:22 am

August 27, 2014 at 3:03 am
M Courtney:
“There are several fluidised bed combustion (FBC) technologies. ………
In all cases, adoption of these FBC technologies is inhibited by the borrowing costs of novelty risk.”
FBC is fairly well established in calcining of various products. I can’t see what might inhibit performance of simple burning of fuel, properly prepared of course. I am presently working on a research project testing both flash calcining and FB calcining on a new type of feed that I believe behaves more complexly than simple burning. It is an attempt to replace the much less efficient rotary kiln.

Reply to  Gary Pearse
August 27, 2014 7:36 am

Gary Pearse:
There are issues of scale here. Several industrial FBC boiler designs were perfected in the 1980s and 90s. Larger power generation plants require planning consents not required by industrial and commercial boilers.
Recycling enthusiasts oppose anything except recycling for refuse disposal. Large scale refuse combustors will be opposed. But, for example, the flue gases of a PFBC power station must cleaned to be be cleaner than the air of a typical office to avoid turbine damage.

Pamela Gray
August 27, 2014 5:40 am

The study is nonsense as there are no controls or comparisons to pre-fire control conditions. It was not uncommon to see local newspapers proclaim that an entire state was on fire (IE “Oregon is on fire”). That was back in the day when there was no such thing as the US Forestry Fire Control service. In due time, nature would retire old growth forests without have to apply for a logging permit. So I call BS on this study as yet another poorly done sensational but air-filled study likely done for an attempt to get in on the gravy train. Remember, you have to be able to say the password and do the secret handshake before you get in the door.

August 27, 2014 9:47 am

August 26, 2014 at 7:23 pm
Waste incinerators were the worst dioxin emitters in earlier times (begin 1990’s). Since then the knowledge of dioxin formation and techniques to avoid it made that waste incinerators are insignificant sources nowadays.
The main dioxin emissions (and lots of PAH’s) nowadays indeed are from trash & garden waste backyard burning, forbidden in my country, but still done by a lot of people.
Main cause: the low burning temperature which gives maximum dioxin formation between 200-600°C.
Modern incinerators operate at 800°C and higher effectively destroying any dioxins, after steam generation followed by quenching to pass the 600-200°C trajectory as fast as possible and de-NOX catalysts, which also destroy the last traces of dioxins.
About barrel burning, I suppose the main figures of that article are here on the Chlorophiles pages:

James at 48
August 27, 2014 10:03 am

North Americans, Europeans and Japanese are incredibly naive and sheltered, when it comes down to it. Outside these zones plus maybe a handful of others, the smells of burning garbage, untreated / barely treated sewage, and, the coal fires of street vendors, are pervasive.

Bloke down the pub
August 27, 2014 11:01 am

The Greens in my neck of the woods, pat themselves on the back over the amount of recycling they achieve. They seem to be unaware that most of the plastics are bundled up and exported to China, in shipping containers making an otherwise empty return trip. Once the material has been sorted by hand, and anything of value recovered, the balance is usually burnt on open fires. The greens prefer this, to disposal in the UK , yet they still like to think that we are the ones who fail to take responsibility for our consumption.

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