Incinerator Misinformation – Pyrolysis & Gasification

This misinformed effort to pretend that some types of incinerators aren’t incinerators has been laid to rest repeatedly, but the confusion still persists.

The numbers below in brackets (e.g., [1]) refer to the linked source references at the bottom of this story.

Most recently, the state of Delaware ruled [1] that a tire pyrolysis proposal [2] IS incineration according to the state’s definition [3], and is thus banned in the state.  (In 2000, Delaware passed a law [4] banning incinerators within 3 miles of a residence, church, school, park, or hospital — which is basically the entire state.)

Read about this tire pyrolysis incinerator proposal here:

One thing that the article, written by an engineer, states is that: ALL burning of solids and liquids involves gasification, simply because solids and liquids don’t burn.  They have to be gasified first.  Combustion is a process that occurs in the “gas phase.”

U.S. EPA and the European Union’s definitions of incineration include pyrolysis, which I’ve documented at the bottom of this page:

As I’ve also pointed out in presentations, gasification (of which pyrolysis is one type) is just a more expensive and complicated type of incineration.  Gasification and pyrolysis promoters argue that they are not incinerators because they aren’t burning waste directly (they turn it into a gas first, then burn the gas).  If you light a piece of paper on fire, technically it’s the same thing… the paper isn’t burning, but the heat is turning the paper into a gas, which is then what burns (hence the small gap between the paper and the flame).  Gasification and pyrolysis basically just separate this process by putting a pipe in the middle.  This provides opportunities to filter the gas before burning, but that isn’t always done, and the toxins produced don’t disappear if filtered. They are just relocated to solid wastes that go to a landfill, making the landfill more toxic.

Claims that no dioxins [5] can be formed by pyrolysis are bogus, as they’re based on the false claim that there is no oxygen in the gasification process (step one of the two-step incineration process).  While air is not added to the chamber, there is plenty of oxygen in the waste burned, which is why data from a company planning a huge pyrolysis facility in Indiana shows that 20% of the content of the “syngas” that comes out of the pyrolysis chamber is oxygen atoms (in the form of CO and CO2).  There are plenty of ingredients to make these ultra-toxic dioxins, and they ARE formed readily because pyrolysis operates at the lower temperatures where dioxins are more easily formed… and tires contain a lot of zinc, which is a catalyst for dioxin formation. [6]

No matter how you cut it, incineration (including pyrolysis, gasification and plasma arc) is the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste or to make energy. [7]  Wasting any time and money considering it is folly.

I see this conversation is turning to jobs.  If cost, jobs, the environment, or property values are the question, the best and worst answers are the same.  The worst answer is any type of incineration.  The best answer on all fronts is a “zero waste” plan.  Here’s a simplified zero-waste hierarchy as I proposed it recently to the state of Maryland in comments [8] on their zero waste plan: Reduce, Reuse, and Source Separate. Separating garbage into the following types:

Source Separate:

  • Clean Compostables ⇒ Aerobic Composting ⇒ Non-food landscaping/agriculture uses
  • Recycling ⇒ Material Recovery Facility (MRF):
    • Recyclables to Highest-end, Most Local Markets Possible
    • Residuals ⇒ Waste (below)
  • Waste ⇒ “Dirty MRF” (a.k.a. Mechanical / Biological Treatment):
    • Additional Recyclables captured and marketed
    • Residuals ⇒ Anaerobic Digestion ⇒ Digestate to Landfill
  • Special Collections ⇒ e-Waste, Household Hazardous Waste and other special/dangerous materials to proper recycling option

A more detailed zero waste hierarchy is here:

…and links to other online resources on zero waste (including zero waste plans from other cities, even Austin, TX) can be found here:

The R-Board really ought to work with experts like Dr. Neil Seldman to help develop a zero waste plan and have a variety of businesses collaborate to fulfill the plan instead of expecting one vendor to come along with a magic box and make it all go away.  Look at the track record of any companies like EEP trying to do this and you’ll see that it’s a miserable track record of failed and expensive projects.  Not a single commercial pyrolysis, gasification or plasma arc waste incinerator exists in the U.S.  Ask why…




[3] 7 Del.C. §6002(25)

[4] 7 Del.C. §6003(c)(2)



[7] See powerpoint and other documentation at


Mike Ewall, Esq. Founder & Director, Energy Justice Network

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