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Making the case for waste-to-energy

For the past two decades, I've heard numerous plastics industry scientists and engineers make the case for burning trash - specifically the "trash" that contains extremely BTU value. But instead of getting the real value out of post-consumer plastics through waste-to-energy (WTE), we spend a tremendous amount of energy (most of it coming from fossil fuels) to recycle plastics, paper, glass and other commodities. The U.S. is behind the times on this issue.

Take Sweden for example. According to a recent report published in Slate.com, Forbranning for All! by Daniel Gross, Sweden sends just 1% of its waste to landfills. And while Sweden recycles, they only recycle about 50% of their trash. The rest is burned in one of the country's 32 WTE plants, which according to Gross burned 2.27 million tons of waste in 2012. Today, Sweden's WTE program produces 8.5% of the country's electricity.

The Environmental Protection Agency produced a report that said incinerated garbage releases 2,988 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced, which "compares favorably" with coal (2,249 lbs./megawatt hour). However, given that we live in a carbon-based world, most of the trash burned would have released the CO2 embedded in it over time anyway as "part of Earth's natural carbon cycle."

A new study (Energy and Economic Values of Non-Recycled Plastics Currently Landfilled in Canada) by the School of Planning of the University of Waterloo on behalf of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), has determined that if all the non-recycled plastics that are put into Canadian landfills each year were converted to energy, using technologies currently available, the energy would be sufficient to provide fuel for over 600,000 automobiles annually.

"Plastics, being hydrocarbons, have energy values substantially higher than coal and almost as high as natural gas and oil," stated professor Murray Haight, one of the authors of the study. "Capturing this energy value of non-recycled plastics would contribute a significant supply of alternative energy in Canada."

Another new study conducted by the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University has found that if all of the municipal solid waste that is currently put into landfills each year in the United States were diverted to WTE power plants, they could generate enough electricity to power nearly 14 million homes annually, or 12% of the U.S. total. Additionally, the study found that it could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 123 million tons of CO2 equivalents per year, an amount comparable to taking more than 23 million cars off our roads. ("2014 Energy and Economic Value of Municipal Solid Waste, Including Non-recycled Plastics, Currently Landfilled in the Fifty States")

Information on the study released by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said that according to the study's authors, plastics represent 11% of the total U.S. waste stream. The total recovery rate for plastics, which includes both recycling and energy recovery, increased from 14.3% in 2008 to 16.6% in 2011. The recycling rate for plastics increased by 21% between 2008 and 2011, to reach nearly 2.7 million tons. The study also found that if all non-recycled plastics in the U.S. were converted to energy through facilities that use modern plastics-to-oil technologies, they could produce nearly 6 billion gallons of gasoline, enough to fuel nearly nine million cars per year.

As all of these recent studies point out, the time has come for people to stop listening to the hype about incinerating trash and learn the science. Today's incineration technology provides for numerous filters and scrubbers in the WTE's smoke stacks, so that virtually nothing harmful is emitted.

I think we can use the Harry Moser "Total Cost of Ownership" model, whether we're talking about reshoring or recycling. What is the total cost of ownership to keep plastic materials in a recycling stream? What is the cost - financially and environmentally - of picking up the trash in large, gasoline powered trucks, human beings (who used fossil fuels to get to work) sorting out paper, plastic, glass and metal, then re-sorting the various plastic materials into one of seven categories and baling it, and shipping it to a local plant for regrinding; or worse yet, putting it on a boat to China for regrinding into pellets or flake for reuse, and shipping it back to the U.S. (a 14,500-mile round trip) where it gets put on more trucks that then take it to resin brokers.

Recycling is a good thing and recycled plastics have a lot of value. But recycling can work hand-in-glove with waste-to-energy to maximize the real value of plastics after those materials' useful lives in product applications are over.  Doing a cost/benefit analysis on recycling of any type of trash might be a good thing. Recycle what can cost/benefit justified. But if the costs (monetarily and environmentally) to recycle plastic outweigh the benefits of recycling plastic, maybe it's time be rational thinkers and join the movement of other countries and incinerate it.

ACC's VP of Plastics Steve Russell, said, "Every day, plastics significantly enhance our ability to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover more of our resources. These important findings show that, while we're making progress, we have a vital opportunity to recycle and recover more of these valuable materials."

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