The history of municipal solid waste (MSW) incineration is linked intimately to the history of landfills and other waste treatment technology. The merits of incineration are inevitably judged in relation to the alternatives available. Since the 1970s, recycling and other prevention measures have changed the context for such judgements. Since the 1990s alternative waste treatment technologies have been maturing and becoming viable.

Incineration is a key process in the treatment of hazardous wastes and clinical wastes. It is often imperative that medical waste be subjected to the high temperatures of incineration to destroy pathogens and toxic contamination it contains.

Incineration in North America

The first incinerator in the U.S. was built in 1885 on Governors Island in New York. In 1949, Robert C. Ross founded one of the first hazardous waste management companies in the U.S. He began Robert Ross Industrial Disposal because he saw an opportunity to meet the hazardous waste management needs of companies in northern Ohio. In 1958, the company built one of the first hazardous waste incinerators in the U.S. The first full-scale, municipally operated incineration facility in the U.S. was the Arnold O. Chantland Resource Recovery Plant, built in 1975 and located in Ames, Iowa. This plant is still in operation and produces refuse-derived fuel that is sent to local power plants for fuel.[51] The first commercially successful incineration plant in the U.S. was built in Saugus, Massachusetts in October 1975 by Wheelabrator Technologies, and is still in operation today.

There are several environmental or waste management corporations that transport ultimately to an incinerator or cement kiln treatment center. Currently (2009), there are three main businesses that incinerate waste: Clean Harbours, WTI-Heritage, and Ross Incineration Services. Clean Harbours has acquired many of the smaller, independently run facilties, accumulating 5–7 incinerators in the process across the U.S. WTI-Heritage has one incinerator, located in the southeastern corner of Ohio (across the Ohio River from West Virginia).

Several old generation incinerators have been closed; of the 186 MSW incinerators in 1990, only 89 remained by 2007, and of the 6200 medical waste incinerators in 1988, only 115 remained in 2003. No new incinerators were built between 1996 and 2007. The main reasons for lack of activity have been:

  • Economics. With the increase in the number of large inexpensive regional landfills and, up until recently, the relatively low price of electricity, incinerators were not able to compete for the 'fuel', i.e., waste in the U.S.
  • Tax policies. Tax credits for plants producing electricity from waste were rescinded in the U.S. between 1990 and 2004.

There has been renewed interest in incineration and other waste-to-energy technologies in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., incineration was granted qualification for renewable energy production tax credits in 2004. Projects to add capacity to existing plants are underway, and municipalities are once again evaluating the option of building incineration plants rather than continue landfilling municipal wastes. However, many of these projects have faced continued political opposition in spite of renewed arguments for the greenhouse gas benefits of incineration and improved air pollution control and ash recycling.

Incineration in Europe

In Europe, with the ban on landfilling untreated waste, scores of incinerators have been built in the last decade, with more under construction. Recently, a number of municipal governments have begun the process of contracting for the construction and operation of incinerators. In Europe, some of the electricity generated from waste is deemed to be from a 'Renewable Energy Source (RES)' and is thus eligible for tax credits if privately operated. Also, some incinerators in Europe are equipped with waste recovery, allowing the reuse of ferrous and non-ferrous materials found in landfills. A prominent example is the AEB Waste Fired Power Plant.

Incineration in the United Kingdom

The technology employed in the UK waste management industry has been greatly lagging behind that of Europe due to the wide availability of landfills. The Landfill Directive set down by the European Union led to the Government of the United Kingdom imposing waste legislation including the landfill tax and Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme. This legislation is designed to reduce the release of greenhouse gases produced by landfills through the use of alternative methods of waste treatment. It is the UK Government's position that incineration will play an increasingly large role in the treatment of municipal waste and supply of energy in the UK.

In the UK in 2008, plans for potential incinerator locations exists for approximately 100 sites. These have been interactively mapped by UK NGO's.

See the list of incinerators in the UK.

Small incinerator units

Small scale incinerators exist for special purposes. For example, the small scale incinerators are aimed for hygienically safe destruction of medical waste in developing countries. Small incinerators can be quickly deployed to remote areas where an outbreak has occurred to dispose of infected animals quickly and without the risk of cross contamination.