Opposition to Waste-to-Energy: A Waste of Waste?

The Waste Management Hierarchy

At a May 11 event in Washington, D.C. cohosted by the German Embassy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, panelists discussed the differences in how Germany and the United States deal with their municipal solid waste (MSW). Germany, which created a national ban on landfilling MSW without pre-treatment in 2005, sent only 1 percent of its MSW to landfills in 2007. Sixty-four percent of Germany’s waste was recycled or composted, and the remaining 35 percent was incinerated in waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities. The United States, on the other hand, landfills 69 percent of its MSW, recycling only 24 percent and using 7 percent for WTE.

At first glance, WTE would seem to be a win-win. It involves incinerating MSW to run a turbine and produce electricity. WTE reduces the amount of space needed for landfills by 90 percent, prevents the expenditure involved with procuring fossil fuels and disposing of MSW, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding methane emissions from landfills and replacing fossil fuel consumption in waste transport and electricity production.

But WTE has many opponents, for a wide variety of reasons. Some object to the high costs. In the United States especially, with so much unused land, landfilling is cheap and the economics of any alternative are not good. Other critics worry about local air pollution or simply don’t want an industrial facility that deals in garbage near their homes or businesses. And some see WTE as taking attention and urgency away from recycling and composting (a better method of dealing with waste) and therefore believe it does more harm than good. This post will look deeper into this last claim.

Waste management options are generally seen in a hierarchy, with waste avoidance at the top. Recycling and composting for biowaste are the next most preferable, followed by waste-to-energy, then landfilling at the bottom (with landfills that recover and use the methane emitted ranking higher than those that do not). Many environmentalists, who see producing zero waste as the end goal, believe WTE is an unnecessary and even harmful distraction from the push to recycle.

In a recent New York Times article, Laura Haight with the New York Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) called incinerators “the devil,” pointing out that “once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you then have to feed it.” In a letter to the editor, Allen Hershkowitz, Director of the Solid Waste Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued that “recycling is the more energy-productive choice for the vast majority of materials found in the municipal waste stream, and the broader ecological winner as well.”

I doubt that even WTE advocates would dispute this last point. But the real question is how much competition there really is between recycling and WTE, both of which are superior to landfilling on an emissions basis. Although opponents of WTE cite the fact that WTE emits more greenhouse gases than coal production, this is true only if landfill emissions from the waste that could be incinerated are not taken into account. Including avoided landfill emissions, WTE is cleaner even than natural gas. Not all waste can be recycled, and so WTE could conceivably play a role even in a world with maximized recycling. But this still does not address the question of whether promoting WTE would take momentum away from recycling.

A possible way to begin answering that question is to look to Europe. Many countries, Germany included, rely heavily on incineration. Eight countries incinerated more than 25 percent of their MSW in 2007: Denmark (the world leader at 53 percent), Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, and Austria. All recycle at a higher rate than the United States, including Germany at 64 percent, Belgium at 62 percent, and Austria at 59 percent. Clearly these countries have found a way to stimulate recycling to a far more significant degree than the United States while also relying on WTE. No country has yet found a way to minimize landfilling through recycling and waste avoidance alone.

Disposal of MSW in EU-27 in 2007

The greenhouse gas emissions reductions from such an approach are not negligible either. In 1990, Germany’s waste management industry was responsible for emissions of just under 40 million tons of CO2-equivalent. In 2006, the industry provided emissions reductions of over 15 million tons of CO2e, for overall mitigation of 55.6 million tons per year. Germany sees roughly 10 million tons more of mitigation potential between now at 2020, mostly through improved recycling and waste treatment. The German government also analyzed the EU-27, finding 192 million tons CO2e of mitigation potential by 2020 compared to 2007, 32 percent of the EU-27’s voluntary climate target.

In the United States, recycling rates have stagnated and perhaps even fallen. The 2008 estimate of 24 percent of MSW being recycled cited above is less than the high of 33 percent from 1999 (other estimates of the current U.S. recycling rate are as high as 32 percent, but all seem to agree that the rate is not rising). The recycling rate in U.S. communities that utilize WTE is higher than the national average.

While the statistics laid out here represent correlation, not causation, they put a major dent in the argument that WTE and recycling cannot coexist. There are legitimate objections to WTE, including its cost and potential emissions, though the local air-pollutant emissions of WTE have been dramatically lowered. But with the U.S. making so little progress toward creating a sustainable waste management system, we shouldn’t make the best the enemy of the good. What is most critical is creating a paradigm shift in the way that we think about waste and waste management (or, now, perhaps materials management), an effort in which WTE, recycling, and most importantly, waste avoidance, can all play a role.

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