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Trash Talk: Is Waste-to-Energy the Next Step in Sustainable Waste Management?

landfillLet’s talk trash — or, more specifically, turning waste into energy.

The US generated about 254 million tons of trash in 2013 and recycled and composted about 87 million tons, or 34 percent, of this material. While more of this could undoubtedly be recovered for recycling, there’s growing interest in diverting other difficult-to-dispose-of waste streams, such as those from agricultural or food production, for example, to energy production.

Twelve US national laboratories are currently working together to develop new technologies that can efficiently produce biofuel from waste streams.

“The idea of using waste as energy source really isn’t new,” says Cynthia Jenks, assistant director of scientific planning and division director for chemical and biological sciences for the Ames Laboratory, on the national laboratory’s website. “For example, some municipal and regional utilities already burn landfill waste as a source for electrical power. But we think there are better, cleaner, and more efficient ways to get at that carbon and use the potential energy from it.”

While waste-to-energy has been slow to take off in the US, it’s big business in Europe, driven largely by EU waste legislation.

It’s also picking up steam in Asia. The Chinese government plans to build 300 waste-to-energy plants over the next three years, including the world’s largest such plant in Shenzhen, which, when it opens in 2020, will burn 5,000 metric tons of trash every day.

The global waste-to-energy market is expected to reach $37.64 billion by 2020 growing at a compound annual growth rate of 5.9 percent, up from $25.3 billion in 2013, according to a Grand View Research report.

While Europe was the largest regional market and accounted for 47.6 percent of total market revenue in 2013, Asia Pacific is expected to register highest growth rate over the forecast period and is expected to grow at an estimated compound annual growth rate of 7.5 percent from 2014 to 2020, the report says.

At the end of 2015, the US had 71 waste-to-energy plants that generated electricity in 20 states, with a total generating capacity of 2.3 gigawatts, according to the US Energy Information Administration. More than one-fifth of the nation’s waste-to-energy electricity generation capacity is in Florida. And, in 2015, Florida’s Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility Number 2 became the first new such plant to come online since 1995 and the largest single waste-to-energy electricity generator in the country.

As communities and companies around the US pursue zero-waste-to-landfill and look for renewable energy sources, Covanta’s chief sustainability officer Paul Gilman expects waste-to-energy to play a larger role in sustainable waste management.

Covanta, which operates 45 waste-to-energy facilities in North America, China and Europe, slashed carbon emissions at its facilities by 18.2 million metric tons in 2014, according its latest sustainability report, while reducing landfill intake by 20.7 million metric tons. Covanta generates energy from waste after all the recyclable materials have been removed. Covanta also works with companies including Subaru and American Airlines to help them achieve zero waste to landfill.

“These companies have found that zero waste to landfill is a theme that really resonates with their client base and so they look to us, especially for hard-to-dispose-of materials like paint sludges that can be used to create energy,” Gilman said in an interview with Environmental Leader.

For example, working with Subaru of Indiana Automotive since 2004, the automaker has reduced the amount of waste per vehicle produced by 53 percent, compared to 2000 levels, and “cut costs to the tune of millions of dollars each year through adoption of the four ‘Rs,’” reduce, reuse, recycle and recover for energy. Subaru ships about 4 percent of its total waste, or 3,000 tons, to Covanta for disposal and energy and metal recovery each year.

“They were aggressive in minimizing their waste and recycling,” Gilman says. “Energy recovery isn’t the biggest part of what they do, for but for them to achieve zero waste to landfill, it was the final piece.”

Proponents like Covanta say burning waste for energy saves money on trash hauling, provides a renewable source of power and is better for the environment than landfills, which produce massive amounts of methane and can leach toxins into the soil and groundwater.

But because the US — unlike European countries — has more land to build new landfills and doesn’t have a federal policy that discourages this, waste-to-energy plants have been slow to grow in the US. “We have no policies or legislation that says let’s achieve more sustainable waste management, let’s minimize our landfills,” Gilman says.

Public opposition to these facilities has also played a role. Opponents including the Sierra Club counter that waste-to-energy plants pollute the air and argue that burning trash should not count as renewable energy. The Sierra Club would not comment on waste-to-energy for this story.

According to the EPA, waste-to-energy plants actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere compared to landfilling. The agency estimates these facilities save about 1 ton of greenhouse gas emissions per ton of trash burned.

Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 brought waste-to-energy facilities under the purview of the federal air pollution regulation. “Most people who talk about emissions [from waste to energy] are talking about pre-Clean Air Act plants,” Gilman says. “Half a plant today is air pollution technology. I laugh when I hear people in the coal utility business complain about scrubbers — our sector was using this technology in the early ’90s. We are very proud of the story that is emissions reduction for our facilities. When you look at the Clean Air Act’s criteria, we compare on par with natural gas plants.”

As companies and municipalities are under pressure from consumers to set ambitious sustainability goals and reduce or eliminate waste sent to landfills, expect waste-to-energy to pick up steam in the US.

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8 thoughts on “Trash Talk: Is Waste-to-Energy the Next Step in Sustainable Waste Management?

  1. What a repellent load of incinerator-industry propaganda. It is very well demonstrated that source reduction and recycling save far more energy and resources than incineration. Incineration is a large source of health-damaging air pollutants and climate-forcing emissons. One could go on and on about the deficiencies of this article…..

  2. The elephant in the room is that garbage burners must be fed. They will need a guaranteed supply to feed them, undermining any recycling, waste diversion, waste avoidance and reuse programs.

    Burning garbage with a whole host of fancy names and jargon, in essence green-washing, fails to address how better design will also be undermined.

    Refill, reuse, repair, redesign all are punished because of the “one size fits all…light a match” solution.

    Burning garbage does not generate “renewable energy”. Nor does it generate “sustainable energy”. Burning garbage is not green nor is it clean.

    With so many people struggling just to make ends meet, the garbage burner flim-flam snake-oil salesmen are having a heyday with local politicians, many of whom are fixated with shinny whirly things that rattle, so the power points and presentations, and let’s not forget the “wheel greasing” are finding sympathetic ears with some public servants, who can barely walk and chew gum at the same time.

    The garbage burner snake-oil salesmen target these types of public servants, much like a wolf pack will cull the weak out of the heard.

    Burning garbage is regressive 19th century “technology” with a fancy and expensive makeover (greenwash). Burning garbage is not anywhere close to Zero Waste or being more sustainable.

    Burning garbage in a garbage burner is a cash cow for a few shareholders, much like a privately funded highway or bridge is, introducing tolls.

    What public servant wants to tell their constituents that “burning garbage in their community is a good idea”? So instead, they hire talking heads to help put the lipstick on that garbage burner pig!


  3. Covanta says that landfills “produce massive amounts of methane”. A significant amount of this methane is recovered as green energy through gas collection and running equipment that generates electricity for the local power grid. What happens to Subaru’s paint sludge that is burned? Some gets by the pollution control equipement and the concentrated ash gets sent to a landfill. Zero landfill…hardly. Most incinerators are located in low economic medium population density areas as compared to landfills which now tend to be located in remote lower density areas. It seems that incineration is an improved throwback to my early days in my solid waste career when the U of Wisconsin Civil Engineering Department changed its name to Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and the mantra “the solution to pollution is dilution ” was questioned. Both incineration and landfilling are necessary solutions to the waste problem. Keep the focus on improving these while looking for improvrments in the reuse and recycling methods.

  4. Covanta is the fox guarding the henhouse. Their opinion is biased.

    Engineers love designing garbage dumps and garbage burners. There seems to be a love affair with dealing with poorly designed, poorly thought out consumer goods and packaging, shove everything into a hole in the ground or into a furnace, bad design at point of manufacturing, bad design at end of life, this is insane.

    Waste to energy is a waste of energy. Burning garbage is a scam, not a solution!

  5. The above critics seemed to have overlooked a key point made at the outset of the article – “While more of this could undoubtedly be recovered for recycling, there’s growing interest in diverting other difficult-to-dispose-of waste streams,” Yes it is true as Alan points out “source reduction and recycling save far more energy and resources than incineration.” , but that presumes that the waste can be, and is being recycled. Not all waste streams are being recycled. and some of those have a high energy potential that can be used as alternative low carbon fuels in certain applications ( cement kilns , steel hearths). As the article points out, the european model uses a 4Rs strategy, and it is a hierarchical model. Recovery for energy is used fuel for waste only after reduction, reuse and recycle strategies have reached their practical limit and is preferred to burying a resource in the ground.

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