Some time ago we wrote about Sweden turning their trash into cash by incinerating their waste to turn it into heat and power. They were (and still are) so successful that they need to import waste in order to feed these incinerators.
However in the past few years the debate has raged over whether WTE plants are a good thing for the environment or if in themselves they hinder the recycling process? The diagram at the top shows that Incineration/Waste to Energy are more preferable to simply dumping waste in landfill but falls behind recycling, reusing or reducing. Those who oppose WTE have the view that once you have burnt the waste, that resource is then gone forever but we all know that not ALL waste can be recycled so the option of WTE must surely have a place in the process.
Europe has led the way politically by making the use of landfill sites uneconomical and aims to eliminate all landfill sites by 2050 – whereas in the United States, the public perception is that of a vast country with limitless availability of landfill space. Coupled with the lower fuel costs this makes the transport of waste to landfill sites a cheap option for disposing of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW).
In 2015 there were 87 WTE sites in the US in 20 states with 11 of those being in Florida. In the same year the first WTE site built for 20 years opened its doors in Palm Beach County, Florida and is the largest in the United States. This $672million facility is expected to decrease the use of landfill sites in the area by 90% and will extend the use of the landfill facility by 30 years, whilst at the same time generating electricity for 44,000 local households. Currently over 50% of US MSW goes straight to landfill.
The Palm County facility also has an educational center with exhibits and interactive touchscreen games which showcase the facility and educate people about recycling.
So how might WTE hinder the recycling process? For a start, building a WTE facility is a huge financial outlay. In order for investors to get a return on their money, they need to tie the local municipalities into lengthy contracts to supply them with waste for incineration. This obviously reduces the incentive to provide facilities to separate out waste for recycling as there is a commitment to provide waste for burning.
How might WTE help the recycling process? Many of these sites are seen as huge unwelcome facilities that nobody want at the end of their street. They are disconnected from the local population who leave their waste out for collection and then think no more about it and what has happened to it. In Denmark a brand new facility just outside Copenhagen called CopenHill (or Amager Bakke) is close to completion (expected in the summer of 2018) and will be the most efficient waste-burning and energy-generating facility in the world.
The plant will produce 25% more energy than the plant it will replace from the same amount of waste. It will provide both heat and energy for 160,000 households across Copenhagen. The incineration process will also recover materials that are not otherwise able to be recycled. Metal segregation from bottom ash will be sold for road construction thereby replacing other virgin material.
However, where this place differs from other WTEs is that on its roof will be an artificial ski slope (although Denmark one of Europe’s flattest countries, skiing is a very popular pastime), a small grove of trees and the world’s tallest artificial climbing wall. CopenHill expects to receive 57,000 visitors each year.
The facility will also strive to create a relationship between consumers and their waste. A huge smoke stack will puff out a steam ring across the city’s skyline with each ton of CO2 that is emitted from the plant. The aim is to educate the local population and make them aware that SOMETHING happens to their waste and to transform people’s perceptions about public utility buildings. If a facility becomes part of the local community, people are more likely to want to know what goes on inside and increases their awareness of the process as a whole, which must be a good thing?
So what side of the debate do you sit now? Denmark incinerates 50% of its waste materials but also has a high rate of recycling its food and organic materials, so incineration does not necessarily mean less recycling if the mindset of the population is geared toward this.
However, WTEs do produce an end waste product of ash (once any recoverable materials have been removed) and these will eventually end up in a landfill, so the process is not ultimately as efficient as recycling. However you look at it also, burning waste is not a form of renewable energy – not like wind, tides or solar – and no scientist would support this statement. But Florida (and several other US states) do consider incineration as “recycling” and award credits accordingly. See if your State awards credits for WTE.
So Waste To Energy offers a partial solution for waste management, particularly where there is no political or economic support for it but cannot truly be classed as contributing to renewable energy or recycling. Is the Danish facility with a ski slope a smokescreen to deflect attention from the creation of another Waste to Energy plant – no matter how efficient it is?
Green Waste Enterprises has a Four Point Plan the 2nd of which includes the call to legislate to improve recycling laws. Given that in the United States, responsibility for regulating recycling is devolved to State or Local Government this in turns leads to a disjointed approach. Do you know what your local approach is to waste management?