Final Paper: The Toxic Effects of Trash Burning


Global climate change is the observed rise of the Earth’s average temperature and the related consequences resulting from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. 

The technological, socioeconomic, and cultural changes that took places during the 18th and 19th century Industrial Revolution led to speculation of mankind’s influence on global climate. Esteemed 19th century French mathematician, Joseph Fourier, first proposed a glass greenhouse, trapping energy in the form of heat providing an insulation layer, as a model for the Earth’s atmosphere. Although early speculation was not taken seriously, today global climate change is one of the most discussed issues with over 97% of scientists in agreement of anthropogenic climate change (Cook, 2013). One of the lesser known contributors to global climate change is trash burning. In recent years, the open burning of waste has been analyzed to determine its contribution to air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. A surprising 41% of all trash is burned (Wiedinmyer, 2014). Even though some trash burning is used as an energy source, the high temperatures needed to incinerate trash still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and the global climate change crisis. In 2014 a study found that trash burning caused CO2 emissions was equal to 5% of all anthropogenic emissions in 2010. More shockingly, open trash burning accounts for 29% of anthropogenic atmospheric particulate matter with diameters less than 2.5 um (PM2.5). Trash burning also contributes to 10% of mercury emissions per the United Nations (Wiedinmyer, 2014).

Plastic accounts for 10% of total anthropogenic waste and 50% of all plastic is one use only, with the average American contributing approximately 185 pounds of plastic waste a year (D’Alessandro, 2014). The consideration of plastic in open trash burning is of eminent importance as an estimated 91% of plastic is thrown away as opposed to recycled (Jambeck, 2015). In this chapter, we will explore the intricacies of the greenhouse gas effect, repercussions of melting plastic, and the practice of trash burning.


The Greenhouse Gas Effect and Global Climate Change

As solar radiation reaches the Earth’s atmosphere, some of it is reflected into space. The remaining solar energy is absorbed by the land and oceans providing heat to Earth. The heat then radiates away from Earth toward space. However, some of the heat is trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere keeping the Earth warm enough to sustain life. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, and trash burning are dramatically increasing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. The increase in greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, are trapping extra heat and causing the Earth’s temperature to rise. Per NASA, Earth’s surface temperatures were the warmest in 2016 since accurate recording began in 1880 (NASA, 2017). NASA also reported in the same study that surface temperatures have risen about 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) since the late 1800s. This includes 16 of the 17 warmest years occurring post-2001.

In addition to surface temperatures, oceanic temperatures have drastically risen. The ocean traps more than 90% of the added greenhouse gases due to its high heat capacity (Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2017). The oceans produce more than half of atmospheric oxygen and absorbs most of the carbon from the atmosphere. Oceans play a key role in neutralizing the effects of climate change due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions as they function in climate regulation and act as the main heat store for the world. Due to global climate change and the rapid increase in global temperatures, ocean temperatures have risen drastically over the past few decades (Reid, 2009). In a Netflix Original documentary, Chasing Coral, coral reef bleaching events results from ocean temperature increases were documented and recorded. They disclosed how the 3.6 degree Fahrenheit (2 degree Celsius) average ocean temperature increase was causing devastating death to coral reef populations and dramatically effecting the ecosystems they support. Over half of the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016 (Hughes, 2018). This system has been exposed to temperature increases exceeding the critical threshold of coral reefs. Bleaching events have been occurring at a catastrophic rate in the past decade and threaten to cause extinction to dependent species.

Imagine coming down with the flu. Pyrogens are released into your system which cause a systemic temperature increase. Let’s say at first your temperature increases by only 2 degrees Fahrenheit, a relatively moderate increase for a short period. You feel clammy and chills overcome you. There is no way for you to get comfortable as your temperature is nearing 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Soon, your temperature increases again, this time by another 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, your temperature is 103 degrees and you begin to feel almost desperate. After several more hours your temperature increases by 2 degrees Fahrenheit again. At this point, you are delirious. You begin to dry heave; you can’t keep down food or fluids. You are becoming extremely dehydrated. Your body aches and you feel dry. Now you have a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit you seek medical care because you very well know another 2-degree increase will result in death. This analogy perfectly symbolizes what a devastating effect global temperature increase has on our planet. The effects are incredible and expansive. Some of these effects (not nearly all) are as follows:

  • Longer and more damaging wildfire seasons
  • More destructive hurricanes
  • More frequent and intense heat waves
  • Widespread forest death
  • Health impacts
  • Coastal flooding
  • Severe droughts
  • Extreme precipitation events
  • Exhausting ground water supply
  • Risk to electricity supply
  • Glacier melting
  • Disruption to food supply
  • Destruction of coral reefs
  • Plant and animal land shifts


Melting Plastic

Burning plastics results in incredibly harmful effects on the environment and the health of mammals. In addition to being correlated to an increase risk of heart disease, plastic burning is also associated with devastating effects on the urinary, reproductive, digestive, development, and nervous systems. Polystyrene, used in cups and food containers, emit styrene gases when burned, which can be absorbed through by the skin and lungs. Styrene vapor can cause damage to mucous membranes and eyes. Long term exposure can lead to chronic headaches, weakness, and depression. (WEFC, 2018) A very serious and persistent environmental pollutant, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo para dioxin (dioxin), is a highly toxic compound produced as a byproduct in the burning of many plastics. Dioxin is under the classification of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) referred to as the “dirty dozen.” Per the World Health Organization, they can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and cause cancer (WHO, 2016).

Plastic burning is very common in many countries due to limitations of municipal waste services and cost of local disposal sites. Both indoor and outdoor plastic burning practices take place, especially in Eastern Europe (according to the WHO), as plastics burn very easily and offer an affordable method of waste disposal. In addition, plastics are a high potential energy source, which makes them ideal for use in stoves and other heating apparatuses. However, the effects of releasing chemicals, including dioxin, are incredible. The most susceptible group to dioxin exposure are developing fetuses. Though dioxin is of eminent danger to those in contact with plastic burning, other chemicals are also released. According to MIT the list includes:

  • Hydrochloric acid
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Dioxins
  • Furans
  • Heavy metals
  • Other particulate matter that contributes to respiratory ailments, immune system depression, and cancer

In fact, an Engineering Systems Division and Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences assistant professor at MIT, Noelle Eckley Selin, is quoted as saying, “There’s a good reason burning household trash, including plastic, is prohibited in most of the U.S. – the toxic species.” (Biemiller, 2013)


Trash burning

            In addition to industrial open air trash burning, home burning is widespread across rural regions worldwide. Burned waste includes materials such as paper, cardboard, food, and plastic. Both industrial burning and home burning increase anthropogenic toxic and greenhouse gas emissions. Though trash burning is widespread, models used to generate chemical and climate data omit these emissions in their application. Current researchers are investigating the effects of trash burning to quantify their contribution to anthropogenic emissions. In addition to greenhouse and toxic gas emissions, particulate matter which is harmful to the respiratory systems of many species are released in open trash burning. For example, 22% of anthropogenic particulate matter with diameters under 10 um (PM10) in China are from open air trash burning. Of the estimated 2.4 x 1012 kg of waste generated globally each year, 9.70 x 1011 kg are burned in open air. (Wideninmyer, 2014)

            A recent study focusing on the trash burning statistics for Mexico City alone showed that the 25 tons of primary organic aerosols (POA) emissions due to trash burning are comparable to fossil fuel POA emissions for Mexico City. Though the contribution of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds were found to be less than 3%, the contribution to organic aerosols and PM2.5 from trash burning were significant. They found that reduction of trash burning could lower these levels by 2-40% and 1-15%, respectively. (Hodzic, 2012)

Several countries remain under 100 Gg of trash burned annually at the industrial level. However, there are much less that remain under 100 Gg of trash burned annually at the residential level. The largest generators of trash are China, United States, India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany. Of these countries, the largest contributors for residential and industrial open air trash burning are China, India, and Brazil. In addition, Mexico, Pakistan, and Turkey rank among countries with highest trash mass burned in open air conditions. (Wiedinmyer, 2014). Still, limited quantifications on trash burning and its related effects have been reported. Current research undertakings will help to fill in the gap in our understanding of open air trash burning and its consequences on environment and health.



            Recently, researchers are working to understand the effects of trash burning on global climate change. Current data shows that trash burning significantly increases greenhouse and toxic gas emissions, in addition to PM10 and PM2.5. Due to the amount of waste generated, the deposal of trash has become a huge problem. Alternative methods of waste disposal, such as trash burning, seem to be a solution to the problems caused by landfills and ocean dumping. However, it is proving to have equally, if not more, hazardous effects on health and the environment. As the investigation of global climate change and its effects and causes continues, we will certainly see more attention shifted on open air trash burning. Our planet and the species it provides life to are fragile. It is our duty to responsibly consider our effect on the wellbeing of Earth and its species. Plastics, especially one time use plastics, are filling our oceans and our atmosphere, alike. Subsequent chapters will propose alternative solutions to plastic use so that open air trash burning can lessen, if not end completely.



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