Progress of Waste-to-Energy in the USA

Rising rates of consumption necessitate an improved approach to resource management. Around the world, from Europe to Asia, governments have adapted their practices and policies to reflect renewability. They’ve invested in facilities that repurpose waste as source of energy, affording them a reliable and cheap source of energy.

This seems like progress, given the impracticality of older methods. Traditional sources of energy like fossil fuels are no longer a realistic option moving forward, not only for their finite nature but also within the context of the planet’s continued health. That said, the waste-to-energy sector is subject to scrutiny.

We’ll detail the reasons for this scrutiny, the waste-to-energy sector’s current status within the United States and speculations for the future. Through a concise analysis of obstacles and opportunities, we’ll provide a holistic perspective of the waste-to-energy progress, with a summation of its positive and negative attributes.

Status of Waste-to-Energy Sector

The U.S. currently employs 86 municipal waste-to-energy facilities across 25 states for the purpose of energy recovery. While several have expanded to manage additional waste, the last new facility opened in 1995. To understand this apparent lack of progress in the area of thermochemical treatment of MSW, budget represents a serious barrier.

One of the primary reasons behind the shortage of waste-to-energy facilities in the USA is their cost. The cost of construction on a new plant often exceeds $100 million, and larger plants require double or triple that figure to build. In addition to that, the economic benefits of the investment aren’t immediately noticeable.

The Palm Beach County Renewable Energy Facility is a RDF-based waste-to-energy (WTE) facility.

The U.S. also has a surplus of available land. Where smaller countries like Japan have limited space to work within, the U.S. can choose to pursue more financially viable options such as landfills. The expenses associated with a landfill are far less significant than those associated with a waste-to-energy facility.

Presently, the U.S. processes 14 percent of its trash in waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, which is still a substantial amount of refuse given today’s rate of consumption. On a larger scale, North America ranks third in the world in the waste-to-energy movement, behind the European nations and the Asia Pacific region.

Future of WTE Sector

Certain factors influence the framework of an energy policy. Government officials have to consider the projected increase in energy demand, concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, space-constrained or preferred land use, fuel availability and potential disruptions to the supply chain.

A waste-to-energy facility accounts for several of these factors, such as space constraints and fuel availability, but pollution remains an issue. Many argue that the incineration of trash isn’t an effective means of reducing waste or protecting the environment, and they have evidence to support this.

The waste-to-energy sector extends beyond MSW facilities, however. It also encompasses biofuel, which has seen an increase in popularity. The aviation industry has shown a growing dedication to biofuel, with United Airlines investing $30 million in the largest producer of aviation biofuel.

If the interest of United Airlines and other companies is any indication, the waste-to-energy sector will continue to expand. Though negative press and the high cost of waste-to-energy facilities may impede its progress, advances in technology promise to improve efficiency and reduce expenses.

Positives and Negatives

The waste-to-energy sector provides many benefits, allowing communities a method of repurposing their waste. It has negative aspects that are also important to note, like the potential for pollution. While the sector offers solutions, some of them come at a cost.

It’s true that resource management is essential, and adapting practices to meet high standards of renewability is critical to the planet’s health. However, it’s also necessary to recognize risk, and the waste-to-energy sector is not without its flaws. How those flaws will affect the sector moving forward is critical to consider.

Waste Management in Global North and Global South

Waste management is highly context specific. Therefore it is important to distinguish between the conditions in the Global North and the Global South. Recent ILO figures suggest that 24 million people around the world are involved in the informal waste recycling sector, 80% of whom are waste pickers. Some estimates say that 1% of urban population in developing countries makes their primary household income through informal sector waste management activities.  In Latin America alone, 4-5 million waste pickers earn their livelihood by being a part of the global recyclables supply chain.

Municipal budgets in the Global South are often limited and only a small percentage of that budget is assigned to waste management as compared to other municipal services. In the Global North waste management is recognized as a necessary public good and there is a greater willingness to pay for this service. Solid waste management (e.g. waste collection, transportation and recycling) is generally more labour intensive than in North America and Europe.

Urbanization in the Global South is often haphazard and unplanned; creating pockets of high and low income neighbourhoods. This creates logistical issues for the waste management service provision limiting options for viable waste collection and transportation. It is often the informal sector that steps in to fill this service gap.

The maturity and strength of the legal framework differs between the Global South and Global North. In North America and Europe the legal framework of waste management actively promotes and provides incentives for waste reduction, reuse and recovery whereas, despite recent developments in some countries, in Latin America legal frameworks remain focused upon mixed waste collection, transportation and disposal.

Recycling rates in Argentina are at 11% of the total waste stream with 95% of this material is recovered by the informal sector. This situation is replicated in many other countries. The informal sector recovers between 50% (e.g. Mexico) and 90% (e.g. Nicaragua) of the waste recovered and in the different countries of the region. Resource recovery and recycling is driven by market conditions. Materials that have a value are diverted from landfill through an informal network of recyclers and waste collectors.

The composition of waste is also very different in the Global South where organic waste is a much larger percentage of the waste stream. Because of the high percentage of organics in the waste stream in many cities in the Global South, innovations in decentralised composting and small scale biogas have been seen across the Global South (particularly in India) and can be used effectively by the informal sector, making a zero waste future a real possibility.

Role of Informal Recycling Sector

The informal sector can be highly effective at collecting and diverting garbage from landfill. When empowered with a facilitating legal framework, and collectively organized, the informal sector can be a key part of a sustainable resource recovery system. Using people power to increase recycling and diversion rates decreases the need for expensive, fixed, high technology solutions.

Understanding that the context for waste management is different between the Global North and Global South, and even in different areas within a city or region, means that no two situations will be the same. However, if there is one principle to follow it may well be to consider the context and look for the simplest solution. The greenest cities of the future may well be those that use flexible, adaptable solutions and maximize the work that the informal sector is already doing.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Trends in Waste-to-Energy Industry

The increasing clamor for energy and satisfying it with a combination of conventional and renewable resources is a big challenge. Accompanying energy problems in almost all parts of the world, another problem that is assuming critical proportions is that of urban waste accumulation. The quantity of waste produced all over the world amounted to more than 12 billion tonnes in 2006, with estimates of up to 13 billion tonnes in 2011. The rapid increase in population coupled with changing lifestyle and consumption patterns is expected to result in an exponential increase in waste generation of up to 18 billion tonnes by year 2020. Ironically, most of the wastes are disposed of in open fields, along highways or burnt wantonly.

Size of the Industry

Around 130 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) are combusted annually in over 600 waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities globally that produce electricity and steam for district heating and recovered metals for recycling. The global market for biological and thermochemical waste-to-energy technologies is expected to reach USD 7.4 billion in 2013 and grow to USD 29.2 billion by 2022. Incineration, with energy recovery, is the most common waste-to-energy method employed worldwide. Since 1995, the global WTE industry increased by more than 16 million tonnes of MSW. Over the last five years, waste incineration in Europe has generated between an average of 4% to 8% of their countries’ electricity and between an average of 10% to 15% of the continent’s domestic heat.

Advanced thermal technologies, like pyrolysis, and anaerobic digestion systems are beginning to make deep inroads in the waste-to-energy sector and are expected to increase their respective market shares on account of global interest in integrated waste management framework in urban areas. Scarcity of waste disposal sites coupled with growing waste volumes and solid waste management challenges are generating high degree of interest in energy-from-waste systems among policy-makers, urban planners, entrepreneurs, utility companies etc.

Regional Trends

Currently, the European nations are recognized as global leaders of waste-to-energy movement. They are followed behind by the Asia Pacific region and North America respectively. In 2007 there are more than 600 WTE plants in 35 different countries, including large countries such as China and small ones such as Bermuda. Some of the newest plants are located in Asia. China is witnessing a surge in waste-to-energy installations and has plans to establish 125 new waste-to-energy plants during the twelfth five-year plan ending 2015.

Incineration is the most common waste-to-energy method used worldwide.

The United States processes 14 percent of its trash in WTE plants. Denmark, on the other hand, processes more than any other country – 54 percent of its waste materials. As at the end of 2008, Europe had more than 475 WTE plants across its regions – more than any other continent in the world – that processes an average of 59 million tonnes of waste per annum. In the same year, the European WTE industry as a whole had generated revenues of approximately US$4.5bn.

Legislative shifts by European governments have seen considerable progress made in the region’s WTE industry as well as in the implementation of advanced technology and innovative recycling solutions. The most important piece of WTE legislation pertaining to the region has been the European Union’s Landfill Directive, which was officially implemented in 2001 which has resulted in the planning and commissioning of an increasing number of WTE plants over the past five years.

Food Waste Management – Consumer Behavior and FWDs

food-waste-managementFood waste is a global issue that begins at home and as such, it is an ideal contender for testing out new approaches to behaviour change. The behavioural drivers that lead to food being wasted are complex and often inter-related, but predominantly centre around purchasing habits, and the way in which we store, cook, eat and celebrate food.

Consumer Behavior – A Top Priority

Consumer behaviour is a huge priority area in particular for industrialised nations – it is estimated that some western societies might be throwing away up to a third of all food purchased. The rise of cheap food and convenience culture in recent years has compounded this problem, with few incentives or disincentives in place at producer, retail or consumer level to address this.

While it is likely that a number of structural levers – such as price, regulation, enabling measures and public benefits – will need to be pulled together in a coherent way to drive progress on this agenda, at a deeper level there is a pressing argument to explore the psycho-social perspectives of behaviour change.

Individual or collective behaviours often exist within a broader cultural context of values and attitudes that are hard to measure and influence. Simple one-off actions such as freezing leftovers or buying less during a weekly food shop do not necessarily translate into daily behaviour patterns. For such motivations to have staying power, they must become instinctive acts, aligned with an immediate sense of purpose. The need to consider more broadly our behaviours and how they are implicated in such issues must not stop at individual consumers, but extend to governments, businesses and NGOs if effective strategies are to be drawn up.

Emergence of Food Waste Disposers

Food waste disposer (FWDs), devices invented and adopted as a tool of convenience may now represent a unique new front in the fight against climate change. These devices, commonplace in North America, Australia and New Zealand work by shredding household or commercial food waste into small pieces that pass through a municipal sewer system without difficulty.

The shredded food particles are then conveyed by existing wastewater infrastructure to wastewater treatment plants where they can contribute to the generation of biogas via anaerobic digestion. This displaces the need for generation of the same amount of biogas using traditional fossil fuels, thereby averting a net addition of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the atmosphere.

Food waste is an ideal contender for testing new approaches to behaviour change.

The use of anaerobic digesters is more common in the treatment of sewage sludge, as implemented in the U.K., but not as much in the treatment of food waste. In addition to this, food waste can also replace methanol (produced from fossil fuels) and citric acid used in advanced wastewater treatment processes which are generally carbon limited.

Despite an ample number of studies pointing to the evidence of positive impacts of FWDs, concerns regarding its use still exist, notably in Europe. Scotland for example has passed legislation that bans use of FWDs, stating instead that customers must segregate their waste and make it available curbside for pickup. This makes it especially difficult for the hospitality industry, to which the use of disposer is well suited. The U.S. however has seen larger scale adoption of the technology due to the big sales push it received in the 1950s and 60s. In addition to being just kitchen convenience appliances, FWDs are yet to be widely accepted as a tool for positive environmental impact.

Note: Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link