Recyclable waste: too precious to burn?

Meeting planners, do you know what happens to the waste from your event?

Many communities  incinerate waste in an  effort to reduce costs (financial, aesthetic, perhaps environmental?) associated with landfills. The act of incineration often provides a secondary benefit of generating energy.  In Copenhagen, Denmark, for example, 5% of the energy source mix comes from the incineration of waste.  Landfill space saved, energy produced.. All good, right?

Maybe not.  Concerned about the incineration of trash, and the potential effect this practice may have on discouraging recycling rates,  I tracked down this article. and this article. I included in as a Twitter post (here) where the link got a lot of traffic, indicating larger interest.  While there are studies offering support for incineration (normally underscoring the benefits outlined above)  it’s difficult to justify  the wasted resources represented in the incinerated ‘waste’ stream (including PET plastic, cardboard, office paper, glass and aluminum), as well as the mountains of toxic slag which must be landfilled or shipped to nations too poor to refuse them.

In her keynote address to the Green Meeting Industry Council, Annie Leonard of ‘The Story of Stuff’ fame shared her own up-close and personal observations of these piles, recounting the journey of one such pile which traveled from New York City to Haiti and, once discovered as harmful to the environment, back again to NYC for better handling.

Not so fun fact: Plastic

It is estimated that 6-8% of total annual oil production goes to the production of plastic.  Of the plastic produced, just 7% is recycled.  The rest? Landfilled or incinerated.

In his book, Sustainability in Business, JP Bergqvist calls waste ‘valuable resources in the wrong place’.  Recyclable materials, like plastic, bound for the municipal incinerator are an especially painful example of this observation.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Incinerate

The reality, at least in the short term, is that incineration probably has a role to play in the ongoing challenge of municipal waste management.  What’s missing, perhaps, is a more aggressive approach to reducing waste in the first place and optimizing recycling.    Destinations, and the businesses who operate in those destinations, must pursue ever-more effective waste management systems which focus on the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle model, complete with published targets and leadership support. Meeting planners, meanwhile, can serve as advocates for such practices and create market demand for recycling by asking better questions and measuring the waste from their events.

Recyclable materials..  they’re too precious to burn.   Looking forward to your thoughts and ideas.


  1. Shawna McKinley says:

    Great post Michael, thanks. I posted about a related topic a few days ago having had two incidents highlight the issue to me last week. The first related diversion goals for the 2010 Olympic Games and the second about a venue we are working with for a pending event (

    I can’t underline enough how important it is to specifically ask about what is included in facility diversion rates. I’m finding more and more venues are including ‘waste-to-energy’ in their diversion from landfill streams. Ask for documentation and verify what streams get included in recycling diversion. Know clearly how you intend to handle a situation where it might be included. Even where you have a stream that appears to go to a recycling facility be aware that some companies in North America may divert some of that stream to incineration. Some of them even have a financial interest to do so.

    It’s a good cautionary note for all of us who plan meetings about how much weight we put in recycling diversion metrics. Even where you measure this, how you measure it creates the potential for greenwash. It also underlines how important it is to try to capture how much you are reducing as a first course of action.

    Cheers 🙂

  2. Michael says:

    You’re so good, Shawna, thank you. I ‘re´tweeted´the MeetGreen Twitter entry which mentioned the brilliant post (readers: see the greendestinations.blogspot com site), and plan to write a follow article here inspired by your findings and shared thoughts.

    Thank you for building on those thoughts here and sharing/recommending concrete actions for planners.

    ongoing thanks for leading the charge toward sustainable events,


  3. Helen Pierce says:

    This may not be the site to ask about your recycling site and if it is not – thanks for reading my question.

    I came to your site on Saturday, March 13th, to drop off some recycling material and found your gates locked. From a friend, I understood that on the second Sat of the month, you took in items like magazines, paper that is not acceptable in our ‘blue’ dumpsters, etc.

    Could you let me know what your schedule is or perhaps you’ve discontinued this service. I will be very disappointed because I was glad to be able to recycle my magazines instead of throwing them into the thrash can.


  4. Mårten Lind says:

    Nice post. I also liked the article about waste incineration. I would think the city of Stockholm and perhaps Sweden in general is proud about its waste incineration. It was certainly displayed as a success story for the European mayors during the Eurocities meeting before christmas, and was probably one of the reasons Stockholm was awarded environmental captial of the year. The article and your post certainly puts this into perspective. I think the simplicity of incineration is an unfortunate threat to recycling and reusing.

  5. Matt says:

    Taking rubbish round to be recycled uses alot of energy.
    Like it or not, waste is being burnt in incineration. Personally, i am not a fan of incineration.
    So, it seems the only sensible strategy is to make packaging which is biodegradable and can be incinerated easily. Ie: PET, corn based platic etc.

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