Changing the conversation on waste-to-energy


June 18, 2018

As the final leg on a whirlwind spring convention season, I recently attended the North American Waste-to-Energy Conference (NAWTEC) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The conference, which just celebrated its 26th year, tackled a number of waste-to-energy (WTE) issues, ranging from the beneficial reuse of ash and the impact of China’s import regulations to facility operations’ best practices.

While the event spanned three days and ran the gamut in terms of topics covered, I was struck by the one string that seemed to pervade all the educational sessions and the general sentiment of the show: the need for a revised message on the topic of WTE in the United States.

WTE, of course, is nothing new to the U.S. The first incinerator in the U.S. was built in 1885 in Governors Island, New York. Since then, hundreds of incineration plants have been constructed and shut down as the technology has come in and out of fashion with the times. Yet, as Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), noted in a NAWTEC session titled “It’s Time to Reframe the Discussion,” of the 77 facilities in operation in the U.S., only one has been built in the last 20 years.

Low landfill fees in many parts of the country and the outdated public perception of WTE facilities being major sources of pollution are two of the primary culprits that have led to WTE being an often-ignored solution for disposal of municipal solid waste. However, with the U.S. facing a myriad of waste-related concerns, the merits of WTE are more important than ever to consider, according to O’Brien.

By changing the conversation on WTE from one of energy capture to the thermal treatment of waste, O’Brien noted that the industry can better sell the benefits of reduced waste volumes, newly generated electricity, stabilized organic and hazardous wastes and waste that is more thoroughly liberated from metals and minerals for recycling.

“In our rush to recover resources, we’ve forgotten an essential point: We’re in the sanitation business,” O’Brien said. “Our primary job is to sanitize waste and protect public health and the environments. And I think we need to remind ourselves of that. We’re not in the business of recovering energy from waste. We’re in the business of thoroughly treating waste, and recovering not only energy, but a lot of materials.”

As recyclers continue to scramble to find end markets for materials, operators look to prolong landfill capacity, zero waste programs continue to gain steam among municipalities and businesses, and environmental issues continue to present new challenges both in the U.S. and abroad, finding a better way of disposing and treating waste figures to grow in importance in the coming years.

Reopening the conversation regarding the benefits of WTE might be a long time coming, but for those in the field, there is no time like the present.