History and Overview
In its early days Waste to Energy (WtE) plants served as an MSW management option, the ability to generate electricity was a secondary benefit. Between 1980 and 1995 the electricity generation capacity was increased to %90 due to the relatively expensive landfilling of MSW. Although the capacity is increased, WTE plants are not the main supplier of electricity generation in the U.S.11
Types of Waste
This page will divide waste into 4 subgroups:
- Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)
- Sludge Waste and Sewage
- Commercial and Industrial Waste
- Toxic (Hazardous Waste)
MSW MSW is most commonly divided into two groups: 1. biomass(biogenic): paper, cardboard, food waste, leaves, wood, and leather products and 2. nonbiogenic: plastics, metals, and petroleum-based synthetic materials. It is important to note that biogenic MSW has a lower heat content than non-bio genie materials, meaning it has less energy value.
Commercial and Industrial Waste. Commercial waste refers to solid waste that is generated by hotels, restaurants, and at non-manufacturing facilities. Industrial waste is generated by manufacturing facilities.
Toxic (Hazardous Waste). According to EPA, toxic or hazardous waste is any waste that has the potential to cause harm to human health and the environment.
MSW Municipal Solid Waste
MSW continues its life cycle in 4 main ways: recycle, incinerate, gasify, or at a landfill.
MSW is a mixture of a variety of items such as product packaging, cardboard, furniture, clothing, glassware and etc. Many of them can be repurposed and recycled at facilities.
To recycle MSW, plastic bottles and other reusable materials are first taken to facilities where they are sorted and repurposed. Large, heavy-duty diesel sanitation trucks that collect and haul municipal solid waste release harmful substances. Diesel fumes contain up to 40 types of hazardous air pollutants including nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds are carcinogens according to the National Cancer Institute. Host communities face health burdens and risks associated with chronic exposure to such diesel particulates33.
Setting up a system to recycle MSW poses several basic challenges. There is a lack of public understanding about properly sorting household and commercial waste. This causes waste management facilities to spend extra resources on separating plastics from paper, metals from glass, and so on. Often producing plastic from scratch is cheaper than recycling44. Another common problem is the inconsistent labeling of recycling bins. Consumers often dispose of their waste incorrectly because of the mismatched and confusing categorization of recyclables. This results in facilities spending extra resources on the separation of waste materials. The complications drive up the cost of recycling to the extent that it is no longer economically viable.
Incineration is a costly method that has the primary objective of volume reduction and extraction of energy from waste. It is also one of the most popular techniques of WtE, where the heat produced by incineration can be converted to electricity55. While advanced air pollution control equipment removes some of the toxic pollutants from the exhaust, it concentrates them in other byproducts, such as ash and wastewater. Approximately 26 – 40% of waste becomes bottom ash. The more pollutants an air pollution control system removes, the more toxic its fly ash is. Incineration also generates new toxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans, which can leach into soil and groundwater and accumulate in food chains66
The gasification of MSW is an alternative to the above-mentioned incineration. Through gasification, syngas is produced and they can be utilized to produce electricity. It is also the building block to produce valuable products such as fuel energy 77. The operation of gasification is similar to incineration. However, gasification uses combustible gases as the main energy recovery. Japan is currently using gasification to resolve the issue of plastic pollution88. Gasification is a more costly process than incineration due to the technological differences and the payback time is about 15 years, for incineration, is 12 years.
MSW can also be taken to different types of landfills to be repurposed or left to decompose safely. There are various types of landfills and each of them has its differences depending on their type and what kind of technology they use. In general, landfills have a considerably short life span before they can no longer be used due to overfilling. In their final stage, landfills are capped and repurposed for the community.
Waste To Energy Plants
WtE plants take the waste that would end up in landfills and turn it into different types of fuel and electricity. WtE plants also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a strong opponent to the climate change crisis. It is crucial to understand that due to urbanization the rate of waste an average person produces will only increase. But the solution does not suggest more landfills, which results in disposing of valuable land that could be used for other purposes. The solution lies in new WtE plants, that do not require enormous land and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is undeniably a part of today and the future.
Where do WtE plants stand today in the U.S.?
Down from 87, there are currently 75 WtE plants active in the U.S. However, in 2015, in Palm Beach County, Fla. a new $672 million mass burn facility opened to generate 96 megawatts (MW) of electricity enough to power about 40,000 homes and businesses99 Due to the high cost of waste incineration, many WtE plants faced economic issues rather than operational and hence their numbers continue to decrease.
Innovations in Waste to Energy
Examples of companies recognized for their innovative technologies are below.
- Bio-Carbon Fuels “Zero Waste Future” The worldwide license holder, Bio-Carbon Fuels Technologies produce downstream fuel from carbon-based feedstocks: MSW, wood waste, agricultural waste, and so on. Their technology heats, shreds, mixes and compresses municipal solid waste into a %2-5 moisture, 9,000-12,000 Btu per pound, %100 sterile and waterproof, zero dust, no odor, convertible into renewable gas, fuel, or electricity. The whole process takes just over 60 minutes. Major engineering firms such as Technip FMC, AECOM, and WorlyParsons. https://biocarbonfuels.com
- Sierra Energy “Committed to zero waste future” The company is focused on the FastOX gasification development. FastOX technology generates energy from trash without incineration. Heat, steam, and oxygen are used to treat waste instead of burning. Organic components of the waste are turned into syngas and the inorganic components melt into a stone called slag, proven to be non-leaching and safe to use for construction. With Sierra Energy, there is no by-products from the waste treatment. Located in Davis, California. The demonstration facility is in Monterey County, California. https://sierraenergy.com
- Enerkem “Biofuels from waste” Enerkem’s patented technology consists of a thermochemical process that treats non-recyclable and non-compostable waste into biofuel and biochemicals. Compared to incineration and landfills, carbon is recovered with this technology and turned into valuable fuel. The recuperation and recycling of carbon avoid Greenhouse Gas Emission(GHG), and contributes to a circular economy Commercial-scale facility located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Innovation center in Westbury, Quebec, Canada. https://enerkem.com
- WABIO “Trash into treasure” WABIO’s technology processes organic waste through anaerobic digestion and turns it into electric power, heat, biomethane, bio Compressed Natural Gas(bio-CNG), bio Liquified Natural Gas (bio- LNG), green technical liquid CO2, dry ice, carbonized CO2 as biochar, and hydrogen. WABIO is either a biogas plant owner or delivers engineering and technology to its clients. The primary location is Neukirchen, Germany. They also have offices in Munich, Singapore and Hong Kong https://www.wabio.de/about
- ISWA World Congress 2023 30 October – 1 November 2023 in Muscat, Oman. https://www.iswa.org/event/iswa-world-congress-2023/?v=ebe021079e5a
- Engineering a Net Zero Future (All Energy Exhibition and Conference 2023) 10-11 May 2023, SEC Glasgow https://www.all-energy.co.uk/en-gb.html
- EUBCE 2023. 5-8 June 2023, Bologna, Italy. The conference is also available online. https://www.eubce.com
- MRF Operations Forum, 9-10 October 2023. Chicago, Illinois.
“Processing plants for single-stream, dual-stream, mixed waste, and C&D materials are complex. They require significant capital investment and incur large ongoing operating costs. Managing these investments to ensure maximum recovery, purity, throughput, and return on investment is challenging. “
Research and Databases
- Eco Prog. https://www.ecoprog.com/index.htm
- Project and Landfill Data by State. https://www.epa.gov/lmop/project-and-landfill-data-state
- ENDS Waste & Bioenergy (EWB). Professional news and information service that provides insight into the European and global waste and energy industries. Their accurate and balanced perspective makes them the UK`s number 1 source for the waste and bioenergy industries. https://www.endswasteandbioenergy.com/waste-to-energy
- The UN Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP is an influential body that addresses environmental challenges, closely tied with 193 Member States and representatives from major groups and stakeholders. UNEP`s projects are founded by voluntarily funding partners such as the Environment Fund. UNEP also relies on project-specific funding, referred to as earmarked, as the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund, and the European Commission. https://www.unep.org
- IRENA(The International Renewable Energy Agency), IRENA is an intergovernmental agency, compromising 167 countries and the EU. IRENA serves as the primary platform for cooperation and leads the way in energy transitions, providing data and analyses on technology, innovation, policy, finance, and investment. https://www.irena.org
Biomass and Bioenergy. 3,441 peer-reviewed articles. https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/biomass-and-bioenergy
Biosource Technology. 16,370 peer-reviewed articles, https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/bioresource-technology
Environment International, 4,316 peer-reviewed articles about waste, $3790 to publish open access articles https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/environment-international
Environmental Science & Policy, 1,332 peer-reviewed articles about waste, https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/environmental-science-and-policy
Environmental Pollution, 6,746 articles about waste, https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/environmental-pollution
Process Safety and Environmental Protection< 2,354 peer-reviewed articles about waste,. https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/process-safety-and-environmental-protection
Journal of Environmental Management. 7,782 peer-reviewed articles about waste, $3700 to publish open access articles. https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/journal-of-environmental-management
Journal of Cleaner Production. 23,455 peer-reviewed articles about waste, $3970 to publish open access articles, https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/journal-of-cleaner-production
Fuel. 8,013 peer-reviewed articles about waste, 810 peer-reviewed articles about sustainable fuel, https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/fuel
Waste Management. 9,977 peer-reviewed articles about waste Supports open access, https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/waste-management
Media and Content Sources
The Fuel of Thought
World’s first podcast about renewables for the refinery industry.
The Drilled. The Drilled podcast, was launched in 2017. Gained more than one million listeners around the globe. They have a strong presence and investigate the obstacles in climate action. https://www.drilledpodcast.com
Outrage and Optimism. A well-known podcast that addresses anything and everything related to climate change, including the economics. They offer exceptional analysis, and they have a wide range of guests from the author of Yuval Noah Harari to NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg to former US Secretary of State John Kerry. https://www.outrageandoptimism.org
A heated daily climate newsletter with over 67,000 subscribers who are pissed(passionate) about the climate crisis. The newsletter is founded by Emily Atkins who is an environmental reporter and writer. Her website is having high engagement. She also launched a podcast with the same name to address the COVID-19 pandemic issues.
The Guardian Environment
Weekly Agriculture Newsletter