Don't Trash Clean Energy: Burning Trash Should Not Be Incentivized, It is the Same Old Dirty Energy

Environmental justice communities throughout the country have long breathed the toxic and harmful pollution resulting from burning garbage. Given how harmful these sources are, trash incineration should not receive any incentives. Only clean, renewable energy should be incentivized.

Dollars for disease and pollution

Subsidizing polluting energy sources would increase environmental injustice in already overburdened communities. Specifically, subsidizing trash incineration under the fiction that it is a “renewable energy”resource would compound the harm; trash incinerators are the worst of an ill-starred environmental injustice list in this section (1). They should not be incentivized for at least the following reasons:

  • They are disproportionately located in environmental justice communities. Four out of five trash incinerators are located in environmental justice communities.
  • Trash is not renewable; indeed, it is contrary to every ecological and environmental notion of the term “renewable.”
  • Electricity generated by burning trash creates more CO2 emissions per unit of electricity than coal-fired power plants.
  • Communities living around incinerators have been found to experience a range of health issues including a higher rate of miscarriage.
  • Burning trash is dirty; it results in the emission of a variety of harmful air pollutants including: particulate matter, mercury, lead, chromium, and acid gases such as hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen bromide, and toxic organics.

In addition to the pollution created by the incinerators themselves, communities must bear the burden of exhaust from diesel trucks that make thousands of trips to supply the trash they burn.

As a result, incentivizing trash incinerators would compound the local harm to EJ communities by global climate damage.

Policy recommendations

Only Clean, Renewable Energy Should Be Incentivized

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided the following definition of renewable energy:

Renewable energy is any form of energy from solar, geophysical, or biological sources that is replenished by natural processes at a rate that equals or exceeds its rate of use (2).

There is, however, a critical gap in the IPCC definition, which did not include a specific period over which the energy must be replenished. This has allowed some to claim that cutting down old-growth trees and burning them is renewable if saplings are planted in their place. This polluting practice is destructive of prospects for reducing and eliminating CO2 emissions 30 years or less, which is the operative climate imperative. To be renewable in a climate-protective sense, the energy must be replenished by natural processes within the same year as it is used.

It is evident that several sources of energy are not, in fact, renewable. Trash is not replenished by natural processes. In fact, waste generation is alien to natural processes. Landfill gas, being based on trash, is also not renewable. Neither is nuclear energy. The only material that can sustain a chain reaction and that occurs naturally in any quantity is uranium. It is not replenished by natural processes; it is a primordial element.

What about the term “clean”? The first entry in the Merriam-Webster definition is “free from dirt or pollution.” By this simple and obvious criterion, some renewable energy sources are clean while others are not. Specifically, combustion produces pollutants. This is the case, for example, with burning biomass, trash, and landfill gas. To qualify as “clean” energy sources must first be renewable; in addition, they must not emit criteria air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates in order to make the energy usable, as for instance, to make heat for buildings or to produce electricity fora variety of purposes.

We, therefore, propose the following definition of renewable energy and clean electricity generation:

“Renewable energy is any form of energy from solar, geophysical, or biological sources that is replenished by natural processes at a rate that equals or exceeds its rate of use in one year or less. In the case of biomass, the carbon in the biomass above and below ground must be replaced within a year of the burning of the biomass. Clean electricity generation must be renewable AND have zero criteria air pollutant emissions in the electricity generation process.”

For any questions and for further details, please email

Authored by Just Solutions Collective and The Equity Fund



  1. Tens of billions are allocated for subsidizing other dirty sources. For instance nuclear power, which would be eligible for roughly $50 billion over ten years, while the people of the Navajo Nation and their land live with more than 500 abandoned uranium mines that pollute their water and increase cancer and kidney disease.
  2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. WorkingGroup III Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Editedby Ottmar Edenhofer, Ramón Pichs-Madruga, Youba Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum,S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel, and J.C. Minx. NewYork: Cambridge University Press, 2014, at, p. 1261; italics added.