Waste-to-energy plants successful in Europe, controversial in US

| August 12, 2014

A recent report by Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center reveals that diverting day-to-day waste to incinerators instead of landfills can actually generate electricity for 13.8 million households, and produce several other forms of energy simultaneously. But, given the reputation of these waste-to-energy (WTE) plants in the U.S., is burning better than burying?

WTE plants remain a controversial topic among U.S. environmentalists, but some people argue that disposal of waste through incineration can save up on fossil fuels and provide ample other benefits to the country. In contrast, WTE plants are a roaring success in several European countries, some even generating revenue two ways—by importing waste from other countries and selling the generated energy to power grids.

What incinerators can do

According to the report, which analyses data from 2011, an estimated 6,100 acres are required to dispose of the 389 million tons of waste generated annually. That’s equivalent to nearly 4,600 U.S. football fields or seven New York City Central Parks. Alternatively, burning the waste at high temperatures can produce electricity for 12 percent of the U.S. population, thus reducing annual coal demands by around 100 million tons. The volume of non-recyclable plastic that goes to the landfills can be used to generate an annual 6 billion gallons of gasoline. Plus, taking the example of some European countries, steam generated in the process can be used for heating nearby townships.

However, the real advantage of sending the trash to these waste-to-energy plants is that it keeps 123 million tons of greenhouse gases in check each year, the major catch being landfill methane emissions. Paul Gilman, Chief Sustainability Officer of Covanta Energy Corp., one of the leading WTE companies in the country, says that every ton of waste burned prevents a ton of greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of the incinerated material comes out as biomass and the remaining one-third ends up as fossil fuel.

Controversies around WTE plants

Despite many advantages, incinerators in the U.S. have always been riddled with controversy, particularly due to poor pollution-control regulations. Almost a century after the first incineration plant was built in 1885, the government realized the adverse environmental threats these facilities posed and implemented policies like the Clean Air Act (1970).

Plants that did not comply with these regulations were shut down. In the 1990s, the EPA  introduced another policy to counter mercury and dioxin emissions. The Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) required existing facilities to upgrade themselves with air pollution control systems or be shut down.

Currently, only 86 incinerators exist in the U.S., several of them built within the last 15 years. New facilities have been stopped midway; environmentalists argue that the waste burning process results in global warming gases and leads to such extravagance that makes the entire effort pointless. A new plant requires at least $100 million upfront to finance the construction and larger plants may require double or triple that amount.

Additionally, monitoring the existing facilities is an issue. Incinerators are complex devices, and a full inspection—even when conducted by a government official—takes five days.

Cash the trash

Incinerators in Sweden are of little concern, as the country imports about 700,000 tons of garbage annually to produce electricity and heating for several cities. Fifty percent of the waste is recycled, 49 percent goes to WTE facilities, and only a mere 1 percent ends up in landfills.

Over the past two years, the UK has paid Norway, the world leader in waste incineration, to incinerate 45,000 tons of household waste, using it to generate energy through vast, highly-equipped incinerators. Seventy percent of Norwegians support this form of renewable energy source.

The Guardian reports that “waste to energy has become a preferred method of rubbish disposal in the EU, and there are now 420 plants in Europe equipped to provide heat and electricity to more than 20 million people. Germany ranks at the top in terms of importing rubbish, ahead of Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands. But it’s Norway that boasts the largest share of waste to energy in district heat production.”

In the U.S., facilities by the Covanta Energy Corp., like the one in Alexandria, Virginia, employ hi-tech pollution control norms and claim to be different from a traditional incinerator. “We have the same waste hierarchy as the E.U.: reduce, reuse, recycle, energy recovery and disposal,” says Gilman. “[This] is that step we call the ‘fourth R.’ After you reduce, reuse and recycle that, you take the step of energy recovery before you put it in the ground.”

Whatever be the case, the country still has some way to go before it can compete with countries that are considered global examples in effective waste disposal despite being presumed to have lesser technological advancements.

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Category: Blog Landing Page, Conservation, Pollution, Regulations

About the Author ()

A creative writer at heart, Lisa currently writes for SmartSign’s blogs and dabbles in content strategies for SEO. She spends the rest of the time lounging in the comforts of her home, surfing the internet for areas of interest, or traveling to unexplored destinations. Having previously studied and worked in the field of journalism and media, Lisa likes calling herself a web journalist. She takes special interest in grassroots and tribal issues, and topics concerning women empowerment. She swears that books are a person’s best travel companion, and that good food can liven up any dull day. Lisa lives in the beautiful city of Jaipur, India.

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