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  • Kendall Plein

Waste-to-Energy Facilities are a Load of Rubbish — Turned into Fuel

If the image of mountains of trash piling up in a landfill seems terrible for the environment, you would be correct. Unfortunately, the amount of garbage generated increases with each successive year, leading to a host of environmental problems like greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater contamination and particulate air pollution. As a result, waste management is becoming increasingly important, and some towns are looking to use their waste as fuel.

landfill with birds flying in the distance
Credit: Shutterstock/Roman Mikhailiuk

Waste-to-energy cuts down demand for landfill space while decreasing carbon emissions, some say. Burnt waste turns to ash, which diverts millions of cubic yards of trash from the landfill. The process also produces electricity, which can be sold back to the public.

However, waste-to-energy plants are not carbon neutral. The combustion of waste material releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, along with other harmful pollutants. Supporters of waste-to-energy systems state that landfill-bound waste has a worse impact on climate change because of methane release. Landfills release high amounts of methane — around 12% of the world’s total. Methane is 34 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, giving credence to waste-to-energy supporters’ claim that waste-to-energy reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions.

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The main drawback to the incineration of waste material is that it is not a carbon-neutral process. Large quantities of carbon emissions are released from the burning, some of which could be avoided. Municipal waste often includes materials that can be recycled or composted, reducing emissions from waste-to-energy. It would also reduce the overall quantity of debris, which could cause concern for some municipalities.

Many waste-to-energy plants have contracts with local municipalities that supply the waste. In some cases, municipalities have to pay when they do not provide enough trash, which disincentivizes waste reduction systems like recycling and composting.

In Europe, several groups have been advocating for using carbon capture and storage systems of waste-to-energy plants. They say that CCS could reduce carbon emissions from incineration plants, which have been increasing dramatically since the 1990s. However, others say that we should not focus CCS technology on emissions that we can avoid.

There are a handful of waste-to-energy plants that have CCS technology already. In Oslo, Norway, one plant captures 400,000 tonnes of CO2 per year while producing energy and heat for 40,000 homes. CCS at waste-to-energy plants are more efficient than CCS at coal-fired energy plants. Municipal waste has less sulfur and particulates than coal, with coal plants requiring more gas cleaning for CCS.

Critics of CCS on waste-to-energy plants also warn that we should be reevaluating the waste material before we burn it. By pre-sorting trash, waste-to-energy plants can reclaim valuable materials (like plastics and metals) while reducing carbon emissions. In Sweden, one sorting facility saves 33,000 tons of CO2 each year from sorting plastic from waste. Instead of capturing CO2 emissions from waste-to-energy plants, plant operators can reduce their emissions before burning the trash.

Waste management is important for our health and the health of the environment. As the amount of waste we generate increases, we need to find solutions to control the emissions and land use our trash requires. Waste-to-energy can help create energy from unused trash, but it is not a one-to-one replacement for fossil fuels or renewable energy.


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