The Growing Role of WTE

Departments - Critical Thinking

April 23, 2012

I was pleased when the Recycling Today Media Group asked me to write a column for its new publication, Renewable Energy from Waste (REW). With a significant flow of U.S. municipal solid waste going to landfills, it’s time to elevate the conversation about the proven and emerging waste-to-energy technologies that divert non-recycled waste from landfills and have the potential to become a significant source of our nation’s energy. I look forward to participating in that conversation in this column.

Depending upon whose estimates you believe, U.S. EPA or BioCycle magazine, we generate between 240 to 390 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) per year in this country, of which some 62 percent goes to landfills, 28 percent is recycled, and the remaining 10 percent is sent to WTE (waste-to-energy) facilities across the U.S. At a nominal energy value, this is equivalent to some 315 million barrels of oil or 158 million tons of coal per year. That energy could provide up to 4 percent of the direct electricity needs of our nation.

Contrary to what some maintain, there is no disposal crisis in the United States. Rather, there is a policy vacuum. While some states estimate their remaining landfill capacity at as few as 12 years, many estimate capacity at well over 200 years. Modern transportation by truck and rail allows this capacity to be accessed by many. Unless planning strategies incentivize landfill diversion, there is little impetus for change. Like many nations in Europe, we need a national policy that achieves a balance of recycling and WTE and minimizes/eliminates waste being landfilled.

In this first column, I want to address one question about WTE that I am often asked: What role does WTE play in the future plans for solid waste management in the U.S.?

I see two roles for WTE. The first role is for WTE to become a bigger part of our nation’s renewable-sourced energy, fuel and/or chemicals. WTE’s second role is to lessen the amount of waste destined for land disposal as part of a sustainable waste management system.

As a country, we import too much foreign oil. Gasoline prices are climbing to and beyond $4 or $5 per gallon; coal-fired electric utilities are under pressure to change their fuel mix because of new boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) regulations; and renewable energy projects are receiving varied support at the federal and state levels.

The federal and, to a lesser extent, state governments have offered some support for emerging technologies that either create biofuels or produce renewable energy from biomass and waste sources. We are anxiously awaiting the results of previously funded biofuels projects that received more than $.5 billion of support from the Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As we wait for their stories to play out, there is a focus for domestic energy from solar, wind and, increasingly, natural gas from domestic drilling and fracking.

It would be a mistake to turn away from efforts to generate renewable energy from waste. Projects coming from the energy side, both public and private, will need to gain access to long-term waste supplies. By GBB’s count, there are more than 35 WTE projects being developed today in the U.S., and waste supply arrangements and pricing will be a major hurdle. And if successful, these projects will reduce landfill use for the waste supplier, whether public or private, whether with proven or emerging technologies.

In countries like Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark, very little, if any, waste is destined for landfills. These countries have achieved a balanced “end-of-life-management” of waste, shared between recycling and WTE. In the United States, our energy and disposal policies and economics, coupled with a strong lobby inaccurately discrediting WTE, have worked against this. It is simply a “waste” to dispose of our non-recycled waste in landfills.

Fifty percent recycling – 50 percent WTE: that’s smart solid waste management for the present – and the future. What do you say, President Obama and the U.S. Congress: Can we get together on this for more home-grown energy, which has less impact on our environment and creates more jobs in America too?

Harvey Gershman,, is president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc., Solid Waste Management Consultants.