Energy | WASTE-TO-ENERGY
RANKING AND RESULTS BY 2050 #68
1.1 GIGATONS REDUCED CO2
$36 BILLION NET COST
$19.8 BILLION NET SAVINGS
Some call this a solution, while others call it pollution. It is certainly the latter. Waste-to-energy is detailed here as a transitional strategy for a world that wastes too much. In Drawdown, there are several solutions that we call regrets solutions, and this is one of them. A regrets solution has a positive impact on overall carbon emissions; however, the social and environmental costs are harmful and high.
The waste incineration industry in the United States arouse from the collapse of the nuclear industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Companies that benefited from building nuclear plants got into a business called “resource recover,” also nicknamed “trash to cash.” This solution does not eliminate waste: It release the energy contained in plastic, paper, foodstuffs, and junk, and leaves a residual ash. IN other words, it changes the form of the waste. Some of the heavy metals and toxic compounds latent within the trash are emitted into the air, some are scrubbed out, and some remain in the resulting ash. At that time, a hundred tons of municipal waste created thirty tons of fly ash, a granular substance laden with toxins. The ash goes to landfills lined with plastic to ensure that leachates from the ash do not seep into groundwater. How long the plastic liners last is not know. The amount of ash generated today is much lower due to newer techniques.
There are four methods used by industry to convert waste to energy: incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma. Waste-to-energy also refers to smaller conversion facilities sited at government agencies, companies, or hospitals that use on of the these techniques to dispose of medical, manufacturing, or radio-active waste, as well as tires, sewage sludge, laboratory chemicals, or neighborhood garbage.
So why feature waste-to-energy in Drawdown at all? IN a sustainable world, waste would be composted, recycled, or used; it would never be thrown away because it would be designed at the outset to have residual value, and systems would be in place to capture it. Yet cities and land-scarce countries such as Japan face a dilemma: What is to be done with their trash—a veritable Tower of Babel comprising tens of thousands of different materials and chemicals. Landfilling requires extensive tracts of land, which countries like Japan do not have or cannot afford. If landfill sites are available, burying waste creates methane gas from the decomposition of organic matter, a greenhouse gas that is up to thirty-four times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a one-hundred-year period. Waste-to-energy plants create energy that might otherwise be sourced from coal- or gas-fired power plants. Their impact on greenhouse gases is positive when compared to methane-creating landfills.
As a strategy for managing our trash, waste-to-energy is better than the landfill alternative when state-of-the-art facilities are employed. In Europe, despite the market for trash (the Germans, Danes, Dutch, and Belgians also are in the business of importing garbage), the rate of recycling, including green is going up, and a 50 percent recycling mandate is in place for the year 2050. In the EU, there is a strategy for addressing the whole waste stream as effectively as possible: Where more rubbish could be reduced, reused, recycled, or composted, it should be.
Waste-to-energy continues to evoke strong feelings. Its champions point to the land spared from dumps and to a cleaner-burning source of power. One ton of waste can generate as much electricity as one-third of a ton of coal. But opponents continue to decry pollution, however trace, as well as high capital coasts and potential for perverse effects on recycling or composting. Because incineration is often cheaper than those alternatives, it can win out with municipalities when it comes to cost. Data shows high recycling rates tend to go hand in hand with high rates of waste-to-energy use, but some argue recycling would be higher in the absence of burning trash. Therese are among the reasons that construction of new plants in the United States has been at a near standstill for many years, despite evolution in incineration technology.
While some agencies and investors believe waste-to-energy is a renewable source of energy, it is not. Truly renewable resources, like solar and wind, cannot be depleted. There is nothing renewable about burning plastic athletic shoes, CDs, Styrofoam peanuts, and auto upholstery. Waste is certainly a repeatable resource at this point, but that is only because we generate so very much.
Drawdown includes waste-to-energy as a bridge solution: It can help move us away from fossil fuels in the near-term, but is not part of a clean energy future.
… Waste-to-energy can impede emergence of something better: zero-waste practices that eliminate the need for landfills and incinerators altogether. If this sounds starry-eyed or impractical, know that ten large corporations have committed to zero waste to landfill, inldui9ng Interface, Subaru, Toyota, and Google.
Zero waste is a growing movement that wants to go upstream, not down, in order to change the nature of waste and the ways in which society recaptures its value. Is saying, in essence, that material flows in society can imitate what we see in forests and grasslands where there truly is not waste that is not feedstock for some other form of life.
IMPACT: The risks of waste-to-energy are significant, but it has some benefits: 1.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions cab be avoided by 2050, primarily due to reduced methane emissions from keeping waste out of landfills. Considering the disadvantages, this is a “bridge” solution—one that will decline as preferable waste-management solutions, including zero waste, composting and recycling, become more widely adopted globally. Island nations, with limited available space, may continue to use waste-to-energy as an alternative to landfilling—employing more advanced technologies, such as plasma gasification, to limit the negative impacts. At a $36 billion cost to implement, saving over thirty years could be $20 billion.