Garbage. Trash. Rubbish. Waste.. All generic terms to reference our discarded items. Even when we sort out our waste items into reusables and repairs, recyclables and “repurpose-ables”, compostables and biodegradables, we are still left with items subject to landfill. Kudos to individual actions taken to sift and sort waste to minimize the amount of trash to landfill (definitely a priority!), but there are other systematic processes in place across the globe to take landfill-bound rubbish, and create a new product: energy.
Although not quite along the same status of renewable energy like wind, solar and hydro, waste to energy (WtE) may present an intriguing solution to our overconsumption and finite space.
What is Waste to Energy
Waste-to-Energy (WtE) is the process that derives energy from burning municipal solid waste (MSW). One simplified explanation for the process has been outlined by the U.S. Energy Information Administration below:
“The process of generating electricity in a mass-burn waste-to-energy plant has seven stages:
- Waste is dumped from garbage trucks into a large pit.
- A giant claw on a crane grabs waste and dumps it in a combustion chamber.
- The waste (fuel) is burned, releasing heat.
- The heat turns water into steam in a boiler.
- The high-pressure steam turns the blades of a turbine generator to produce electricity.
- An air pollution control system removes pollutants from the combustion gas before it is released through a smoke stack.
- Ash is collected from the boiler and the air pollution control system.”
Image: Waste to Energy: How it works - click here for explanations for each step of the diagram.
When done properly, Waste to Energy plants can reduce 80-90% of a community's landfill waste volume - which also drastically reduces the amount of Greenhouse Gases such as CO2 emission from other methods of incineration AND methane release as the tons of waste historically break down in landfill.
Who is doing Waste to Energy
So far, Waste to Energy sounds pretty neat. So, who’s doing it?
According to a 2020 report from the EIA, most waste to energy plants are located in Japan and throughout European countries, which makes sense as these countries are often limited on physical space for landfills. Essen-Karnap, a German facility, was converted in the 1990s from a coal-power plant to the WtE facility to become one of the largest in the country. Essen is capable of taking 700,000 tons of otherwise non-recyclable material per year, and follows along with environmental regulations to include a comprehensive protection of the environment.
Noted in a report from Mordor Intelligence, “As of 2019, Japan has more than 1000 incinerators, around 380 of which are waste-to-energy plants...These facilities have undergone a major modernization program to improve their environmental performance, with emissions in line to protect human health and the environment. As of 2018, the electricity generated from industrial waste (17248 GWh) was comparatively higher than that of electricity generated from municipal waste (1719 GWh). Thus, making industrial waste much more useful to produce energy out of it.”
O‘ahu also has its own WtE facility, H-Power (Honolulu Program of Waste Energy Recovery) that we’re hoping to special feature in the future!
What are the Critiques of Waste to Energy
Unfortunately there are few golden solutions to our world’s problems, and the WtE method definitely does have its fair share of critiques. First, WtE still ignores the primary issue of too much waste in the first place. Ultimately, a less wasteful lifestyle is an ideal, but we all got work to do. Another question that might have popped into your noggin’ upon reading about WtE is the harmful effects of burning waste. Yes! This can present harmful and hazardous byproducts! Both Bottom and Fly Ash are byproducts of the waste to energy process. Bottom Ash is residual material that can be repurposed into construction material whereas Fly Ash particles are treated as hazardous waste. Good news is that the system is carefully constructed, monitored and continuously improved to prevent further environmental damage and health concerns.
We live on a finite planet, not just in terms of the resources available, but also for the limited physical space we have. Waste minimization is a must, but waste repurposing can also buy us some time for more long-term solutions. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the weight of our changing world, you are not alone! Live in gratitude and intention that you’re doing your best. The most sustainable lifestyle is one that is lived in balance - balance of budget, of mental health, and of education.
Small steps make big changes, and just by reading this blog post - you’ve already taken another little step in the right direction. We believe wholeheartedly in the concept of balance, and although some days it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the things we can’t really control, let’s focus on the things we can control - and together, we’ll make the world that much brighter.