Humans generate over 2.1 billion tons of municipal waste annually. Most of this waste is transported to landfills, where it sits, decays, and releases a suite of environmental pollutants. But an alternative solution is converting it into energy. Locked inside the 2.1 billion tons of municipal waste that we generate each year is approximately 24.5 quadrillion Btu of energy, enough heat to meet about 10% of global annual electricity consumption. In the USA we throw away about 245 million tons of waste annually, 62% more than we did in 1960. This is termed MSW – Municipal Solid Waste. While Zero Waste remains the prime objective, waste must be currently either landfilled or burned in waste-to-energy incinerators. Particularly in Europe and Asia, WTE is the accepted preference when it comes to reducing the greenhouse emissions resulting from our consumption habits.
- The waste problem
- Landfill problems
- Waste-to-energy incineration
- USA information
- Global overview
The waste problem
December 2017: WTE overview on 2018 trends. In cities around the world, waste management is a rising crisis, and in many regions, governments are turning to waste-to-energy facilities to control landfill expansion. New Delhi, for example, is facing a serious landfill dilemma over the next five years, when it expects city waste to require an area equal to 7% of the city’s land. To resolve the issue, the Indian government hopes to build a waste-to-energy plant that would process one-third of the city’s waste. China, too, has made waste-to-energy a priority. link
March 2012: Global WTE market to reach $29.2 billion by 2022. Although more than 800 thermal WTE plants currently operate in nearly 40 countries around the globe, these facilities treated just 11% of MSW (municipal solid waste) generated worldwide in 2011 compared to the 70% that was landfilled. WTE encompasses thermal and biological conversion technologies that unlock the usable energy stored in solid waste. High upfront capital costs and attractive economics for landfilling, however, represent persistent barriers to widespread adoption. According to a new report this number is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. Waste-to-energy systems will treat at least 261 million tons of waste annually by 2022, with a total estimated output of 283 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity and heat generation, up from 221 TWh in 2010. Under a more optimistic scenario, WTE will potentially treat 396 million tons of MSW a year, producing 429 TWh of power. link
March 2011: Garbage: to burn or bury? Europe burns heaps of garbage, getting lots of electricity and some heat. The United States does not. This Renewable Energy World article looks at some of the conflicting issues, but asserts that, ” . . . landfills produce 1.6 to 5.7 times more greenhouse-warming as waste-to-energy to make the same amount of electricity.” link
Sweden a leader in waste-to-energy. In Sweden more than 99% of all household waste is recycled in one way or another. This means that the country has gone through something of a recycling revolution in the last decades, considering that only 38% of household waste was recycled in 1975. The waste sector will reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 76% during the years 1990-2020, according to the Climate Committee’s forecast. Waste incineration in Sweden produced as much energy in 2007 as 1.1 million m³ of oil, which reduces CO2 emissions by 2.2 million tons per year, as much as 680,000 petrol-powered cars emit in a year. Despite waste incineration increasing, emissions have fallen. For example, emissions of heavy metals from waste incineration into the air have fallen by almost 99% since 1985. In addition, the total emissions of dioxins from all of the country’s waste incineration plants have fallen from around 100 g to less than 1 gram during the same period. Sweden has had strict standards limiting emissions from waste incineration since the mid-1980s. Most emissions have fallen by between 90 and 99% since then thanks to ongoing technical development and better waste sorting. link & pdf
Does WTE discourage recycling? WTE construction in the U.S. is being held back by fears that burning trash will cause people to reduce their recycling effort or will put dangerous toxins into the environment. But are those fears supported by the evidence? The five European nations with the highest recycling rates (Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden) also have among the highest WTE usage. link
October 2012: Seeking a solution to New York’s trash dilemma. New York City is thinking about diverting garbage from out-of-state landfills and using it to generate WTE electricity locally. The plan pits concerns about city spending and carbon emissions against fears of environmental injustice. link
|This Energy Recovery Council link has the following information:
Waste-to-energy is a proven technology used globally to generate clean, renewable energy from the sustainable management of municipal solid waste (MSW). Progressive communities around the world employ strategies to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover energy from waste. With approximately 29% of America’s waste being recycled, 7.6% processed at waste-to-energy facilities and 63.5% landfilled, MSW is an abundant, valuable, and underutilized source of domestic energy.
By processing this material, waste-to-energy facilities:
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces about 4.4 pounds of garbage a day, or a total of 1,600 pounds a year. (The US total is therefore close to 250 million tons per year.) This only takes into consideration the average household member and does not count industrial waste or commercial trash. If this sounds like a staggering number, you would be surprised to know that Americans are not the number one producers of garbage in the world. In Mexico, the average household produces 30% more garbage than in America. link
May 2016: Living near landfills damage health. According to research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, health is at risk for those who live within five kilometres of a landfill site. The results showed a strong association between Hydrogen Sulphide (used as a surrogate for all pollutants co-emitted from the landfills) and deaths caused by lung cancer, as well as deaths and hospitalizations for respiratory diseases. The results were especially prominent in children. link
2017 EU policy on landfills. The European Commission adopted an ambitious Circular Economy Package which includes revised legislative proposals on waste to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs. The revised legislative proposal on waste sets clear targets for reduction of waste and establishes an ambitious and credible long-term path for waste management and recycling. Goals by 2030 include a target for recycling 65% of municipal waste, and 75% of packaging waste, and reducing landfill to a maximum of 10%. link
July 2012: Landfills much greater source of GHGs than previously thought. Landfills, the current destination for a majority of the world’s trash, are a major source of methane. In 2009, the Sierra Club undertook a year-long due diligence. Peeling back the onion layers, its technical experts found that industry’s claims, that their operators captured most of the methane generated in landfills, and that landfill-gas-to-energy (LFGTE) miraculously converted lemons into lemonade, were as bogus as the ethanol deceit. In fact, landfills were responsible for almost five times more GHG emissions than understood. Previously landfills were held responsible for 1.6% of total man-made emissions (11th largest contributor of greenhouse gases). However new data shows landfills represent 7.5% of greenhouse gases, making landfills 4th largest contributor. link
Landfill recovery. The EPA says, “Even the best liner and leachate collection system will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration, and recent improvements in containment technologies suggest that releases may be delayed by many decades at some landfills. For this reason, the EPA is concerned that while corrective action may already have been triggered at many facilities, 30 years may be insufficient to detect releases at other landfills.” link
All landfills will eventually fail and leak leachate into ground and surface water. Plastics are not inert. State-of-the-art plastic (HDPE) landfill liners (1/10 inch or 100 mils thick) and plastic pipes allow chemicals and gases to pass through their membranes, become brittle, swell, and break down. The U.S. has 3,091 active landfills and over 10,000 old municipal landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. link (Scroll down)
Overview of WTE. While some people still confuse modern waste-to-energy plants with incinerators of the past, the environmental performance of the industry is beyond reproach. Studies have shown that communities that employ waste-to-energy technology have higher recycling rates than communities that do not utilize waste-to-energy. The recovery of ferrous and non-ferrous metals from waste-to-energy plants for recycling is strong and growing each year. In addition, numerous studies have determined that waste-to-energy plants actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere. Nowadays, waste-to-energy plants based on combustion technologies are highly efficient power plants that utilize municipal solid waste as their fuel rather than coal, oil or natural gas. Waste-to-energy plants recover the thermal energy contained in the trash in highly efficient boilers that generate steam that can then be sold directly to industrial customers, or used on-site to drive turbines for electricity production. WTE plants are highly efficient in harnessing the untapped energy potential of organic waste by converting the biodegradable fraction of the waste into high calorific value gases like methane. The digested portion of the waste is highly rich in nutrients and is widely used as biofertilizer in many parts of the world. link
|What exactly happens? A visit to a WTE facility by students in London (2014) – LSE staff visited the Ecopark waste treatment plant in Edmonton, North London. LSE’s Sustainability Team, along with residences staff and green champions, went on a tour of London Waste Ecopark waste treatment centre. We wanted to see for ourselves what exactly happens when waste leaves your bin, and gets carried away to the fabled, usually unseen land of ‘recycling’ – where rubbish is processed into raw materials, composted, or burned to generate electricity. Jon Emmett, LSE Sustainability Projects Officer, looks back at the sights, sounds, and smells. link|
June 2016: Pollution issues with WTE. Whether dioxin, mercury, lead and other toxins go out the stack, are captured, or end up in the ash that is left over after incineration, they’re still there. Nickolas John Themelis, an engineering professor at Columbia University and chairman of the Global Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council, argues that pollution concerns are overblown, saying “Studies have shown that the entire US WTE industry produces 3 grams of dioxin per year. . .by comparison, there are over 3,000 landfill fires reported every year, and they produce 1,400 grams of dioxin.” link
What the EPA says on emissions: Waste-to-energy facilities are subject to standards that are among the most stringent in the world. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, more than $1 billion was invested in upgrades to air quality control systems at America’s waste-to-energy facilities. The results were so dramatic that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote that the “upgrading of the emissions control systems of large combustors to exceed the requirements of the Clean Air Act Section 129 standards is an impressive accomplishment.” In addition to combustion controls, waste-to-energy facilities employ sophisticated air quality control equipment.
|The EPA has stated that waste-to-energy plants produce electricity with “less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” Studies have determined that we can avoid nearly one ton of CO2 emissions for every ton of trash processed by a waste-to-energy plant rather than discarded conventionally. link|
Worldwide, about 130 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) are combusted annually in over 600 waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities that produce electricity and steam for district heating and recovered metals for recycling. Since 1995, the global WTE industry increased by more than 16 million tonnes of MSW. Currently, there are WTE facilities in 35 nations, including large countries such as China and small ones such as Bermuda. Some of the newest plants are located in Asia. link (A ‘tonne’ is used outside the US and is equivalent to 1,000 kg – about 2,204 lbs. A ‘ton’ is almost exclusively used in the US and is 2,000 lbs.)
|AD – anaerobic digestion. The most common waste-to-energy applications in the U.S. include the combustion of municipal solid waste (MSW), landfill gas-to-energy, and the digestion of farm waste or waste water. An often overlooked waste-to-energy resource, however, is mixed organic waste (for example, food and yard waste) anaerobic digestion (AD). AD technologies comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, so for now, we’ve used assumptions provided by a dry fermentation (that is a digester that accepts higher-solids waste) technology provider.
The EPA estimates that in 2008, 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (including organic and non-organic) was generated in the U.S. While 22 million tons of organic waste was diverted for composting, an estimated 43 million tons of organic waste was sent to landfills. The total electric and thermal power (assuming a combined heat and power application) associated with this organic waste is approximately 1 GWe, equivalent to serving close to 1 million homes. While composting may appear to be a direct competitor to AD for organic waste, the two are mutually beneficial because remaining digestate from the AD process can be composted and sold. link
WTE emissions: In the late 1980s, WTE plants were listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as major sources of mercury and dioxin/furan emissions. However, in response to the Maximum Available Technology (MACT) regulations promulgated in 1995 by the US EPA, the US WTE industry spent more than one billion dollars in retrofitting pollution control systems and becoming one of the lowest emitters of high temperature processes. The US EPA recently affirmed that WTE plants in the US produce 2800 MW of electricity with less environmental impact that almost any other source of electricity. Columbia University researchers have estimated the WTE content equivalent to theoretically generating 82,000MW of electricity. link
Environmental benefits. Despite the great reduction in emissions attained by WTE facilities in the last 15 years, some environmental groups in the US continue to oppose new WTE facilities on principle, unaware that the only alternative for MSW disposal – landfills – have much larger environmental impacts. For every ton of waste landfilled, greenhouse gas emissions in the form of carbon dioxide increase by at least 1.3 tons. During the life of a modern landfill and for a mandated period after closure, aqueous effluents are collected and treated chemically; however, chemical reactions and volume decrease of the landfilled MSW can continue for decades and centuries. Thus, there is potential for future contamination of adjacent waters. It is for this reason that communities built on sandy soil, such as those in Long Island in New York State and the state of Florida have opted for WTE disposal of their MSW. link
Is dioxin a problem? Dioxins are known to cause cancer in animals and likely in humans and may also cause other reproductive or developmental effects. Improved combustion technology and air pollution controls have dramatically reduced the quantity of dioxins emitted from MSW combustion facilities. Actions to reduce and control dioxins in the environment have reduced emissions by more than 90% from 1987 levels. Medical waste incinerators emitted about 5 pounds of dioxin equivalents in 1987, but under EPA regulations they now will be limited to about 1/4 ounce annual emissions. link
June 2016: WTE in the USA. Today, 70 mass-burn plants in 21 states consume about 13% of the nation’s trash, down from a peak of 14.5% in 1990. Cumulatively they offer roughly 2.5 gigawatts of power in return, less than a tenth of what the U.S. solar industry produces. The most recent inventory available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that MSW incinerators released about 1% of the quantity of carcinogenic and highly toxic dioxin-like compounds in 2000 that they did just 13 years earlier. Yet by the 1980s the damage to incineration’s reputation was done, as far as many environmental groups and the public at large were concerned. And the battle lines drawn all those years ago remain largely intact today. So claims that these new technologies offer a panacea to waste management and a source of clean, renewable energy have met with skepticism and organized opposition in dozens of communities nationwide faced with proposals in recent years. link
In the United States roughly 728,000 tons of garbage is collected daily – enough to fill 63,000 garbage trucks. More details here
February 2016: China to get world’s largest wte plant. Proposed for the mountainous region on the outskirts of Shenzhen, the waste-to-energy plant is expected to incinerate 5,000 tonnes of rubbish per day, approximately one third of the waste generated by the city’s 20 million inhabitants each year. According to the Danish architects, the facility will utilise the most advanced technology in waste incineration and power generation. The huge circular building will be covered with photovoltaic panels, allowing the building to generate its own sustainable supply of energy. link
March 2018: Ethiopia Building Africa’s first waste-to- energy plant. The plant, which was expected to begin operating in January, will incinerate 1,400 tons of waste every day, about 80% of Addis Ababa’s waste generation, supplying nearby residents with 30% of their household energy needs. The project is just one component of Ethiopia’s broader strategy to address pollution and embrace renewable energy across all sectors of the economy. link
August 2009: Europe leads the way on WTE.
More evidence emerges that Europe is advancing more rapidly than other regions on the environmental front. It is the largest waste-to-energy plants market in the world, with well-developed infrastructure and more than 429 such incinerator facilities, A new analysis finds that this market earned revenue of $4.4 billion last year. The European Union’s push to shift away from landfills through its Landfill Directive “has indirectly helped the waste-to-energy business” the report says. (above – Brescia WTE facility in Italy) link
May 2017: India plans waste-to-energy plant for New Delhi. Researchers from Sheffield University in the U.K. are working with the Indian government to build a new power plant which will process a third of New Delhi’s waste. Project leaders said in a statement: “New Delhi is in crisis without serious intervention and a new wte plant.” The plant will process a third of the city’s waste (4,000 tons per day) and produce 32MW of power, according to the university. link
|To an even greater extent than in the United States, waste-to-energy has thrived in Europe and Asia as the preeminent method of waste disposal. Lauding waste-to-energy for its ability to reduce the volume of waste in an environmentally-friendly manner, generate valuable energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, European nations rely on waste-to-energy as the preferred method of waste disposal. In fact, the European Union has issued a legally binding requirement for its member States to limit the landfilling of biodegradable waste. According to the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP), Europe currently treats 50 million ton of wastes at waste-to-energy plants each year, generating an amount of energy that can supply electricity for 27 million people or heat for 13 million people. Upcoming changes to EU legislation will have a profound impact on how much further the technology will help achieve environmental protection goals. link|
January 2016: UAE signs deal to develop waste-to-energy sector. The United Arab Emirates government has a target to divert waste from landfills by 75% by 2021. “Dumping waste in landfills is not desirable, so finding innovative ways to release the embodied energy in waste is crucial if we are to address the sustainability challenges of increased urbanization and consumerism.” said Masdar chief executive Dr Belhoul. link
September 2013: Oslo is one of the greenest cities in the world, with plans to halve its carbon emissions by 2020. Key to achieving this is the country’s biggest energy recovery facility, the Klemetsrud plant, which generates energy by burning rubbish. At full capacity, the plant will provide all the heat and electricity for Oslo’s schools and heat for 56,000 homes. link
|Denmark. According to EPA and Eurostat figures, Denmark recycles 42% of its waste and burns 54% in heat and power stations. The US, by comparison, recycles 33% while only 13% is used in waste-to-energy incinerators. The majority of US trash – 54% – ends up in landfills, compared to only 4% in Denmark. More on Denmark’s incinerator story here.
April 2010: Europe finds clean energy in trash – U.S. lags. Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin,that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago. In that time, such plants have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark.
April 2015: Rapid growth in China’s waste-to-energy market. China’s waste incineration sector has experienced rapid growth from 2011 to 2015. Chinese waste-to-energy plants that have either been operational or under construction are expected to number over 300 by the end of 2015, when China’s annual solid waste incineration capacity is forecast to reach 100 million tons, according to the government’s guidelines. Currently, China has 20 waste-to-energy plants in operation spread across 15 cities. China had 138 waste incineration plants in operation in 2012 with aggregate processing volume exceeding 35 million tons, making China the country with the world’s largest amount of waste incineration, according to data from the National Center of Solid Waste Management, a research unit under the Ministry of Environmental Protection. link
From ZeroWasteAmerica.org comes this definition of zero-waste: zero-waste is the recycling of all materials back into nature or the marketplace in a manner that protects human health and the environment.
Zero waste is a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st Century; it is not simply about putting an end to landfilling. Aiming for zero waste is not an end-of-pipe solution. That is why it heralds fundamental change. Aiming for zero waste means designing products and packaging with reuse and recycling in mind. It means ending subsidies for wasting. It means closing the gap between landfill prices and their true costs. It means making manufacturers take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products and packaging. Zero waste efforts, just like recycling efforts before, will change the face of solid waste management in the future. Instead of managing wastes, we will manage resources and strive to eliminate waste. – Institute for Local Self Reliance
More at ecocycle.org
The Zero Waste International Alliance has been formed to promote the use of Zero Waste strategies.
July 2018: Cradle to Cradle – living in a world without waste. “From cradle to cradle” refers to the ideal of an end to waste. Advocates want products to be part of a closed cycle. Nature itself is the model where everything that dies is broken down into nutrients that feed new life. Michael Braungart, who co-wrote the book “Cradle to Cradle,” with US architect William McDonough, says we too should reintroduce everything we use back into the biological cycle. link
August 2016: The complicated journey to zero waste. Americans throw away 4.4 pounds of trash per day. Around 50% of the 254 million tons of waste the United States produces is sent to one of the 2,000 active landfills across the country. The rest of the waste is recycled, composted, or incinerated. Around 15% of household garbage is incinerated. The incinerators of today with pollution controls and energy recovery have made leaps forward compared to the incinerators of the past, which did not have any control over combustion whatsoever. That’s in part due to the Clean Air Act amendments in the 1990s, which established the maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standards. Pollutants like mercury, cadmium, lead, chlorinated dibenzodioxins, dibenzofurans, have been reduced by 94 to 99% between 1990 and 2005. link
Also see Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council – link