WTE - Waste-to-Energy   

Humans generate over 2.1 billion tons of municipal waste annually. Most of this waste is transported to landfills, where it sits, decays, and releases a suite of environmental pollutants.  But an alternative solution is converting it into energy. Locked inside the 2.1 billion tons of municipal waste that we generate each year is approximately 24.5 quadrillion Btu of energy, enough heat to meet about 10% of global annual electricity consumption. In the USA we throw away about 245 million tons of waste annually, 62% more than we did in 1960. This is termed MSW - Municipal Solid Waste.

While Zero Waste remains the prime objective, waste must be currently either landfilled or burned in waste-to-energy incinerators. Particularly in Europe and Asia, WTE is the accepted preference when it comes to reducing the greenhouse emissions resulting from our consumption habits.


  • The waste problem
  • Landfill problems
  • Waste-to-energy incineration
  • USA information
  • Europe & Asia
  • Zero-waste
The waste problem

March 2012: Global WTE market to reach $29.2 billion by 2022.  Although more than 800 thermal WTE plants currently operate in nearly 40 countries around the globe, these facilities treated just 11% of MSW (municipal solid waste) generated worldwide in 2011 compared to the 70% that was landfilled. WTE encompasses thermal and biological conversion technologies that unlock the usable energy stored in solid waste. High upfront capital costs and attractive economics for landfilling, however, represent persistent barriers to widespread adoption.  According to a new report this number is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. Waste-to-energy systems will treat at least 261 million tons of waste annually by 2022, with a total estimated output of 283 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity and heat generation, up from 221 TWh in 2010. Under a more optimistic scenario, WTE will potentially treat 396 million tons of MSW a year, producing 429 TWh of power. link

March 2011: Garbage: to burn or bury? Europe burns heaps of garbage, getting lots of electricity and some heat. The United States does not. This Renewable Energy World article looks at some of the conflicting issues, but asserts that,  " . . . landfills produce 1.6 to 5.7 times more greenhouse-warming as waste-to-energy to make the same amount of electricity."  link

Sweden's experience.

Sweden a leader in waste-to-energy. In Sweden more than 99% of all household waste is recycled in one way or another. This means that the country has gone through something of a recycling revolution in the last decades, considering that only 38% of household waste was recycled in 1975. The waste sector will reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 76% during the years 1990-2020, according to the Climate Committee’s forecast. Waste incineration in Sweden produced as much energy in 2007 as 1.1 million m of oil, which reduces CO2 emissions by 2.2 million tons per year, as much as 680,000 petrol-powered cars emit in a year. Despite waste incineration increasing, emissions have fallen. For example, emissions of heavy metals from waste incineration into the air have fallen by almost 99% since 1985. In addition, the total emissions of dioxins from all of the country’s waste incineration plants have fallen from around 100 g to less than 1 gram during the same period.  Sweden has had strict standards limiting emissions from waste incineration since the mid-1980s. Most emissions have fallen by between 90 and 99% since then thanks to ongoing technical development and better waste sorting. link & pdf

Does WTE discourage recycling? WTE construction in the U.S. is being held back by fears that burning trash will cause people to reduce their recycling effort or will put dangerous toxins into the environment.  But are those fears supported by the evidence? The five European nations with the highest recycling rates (Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden) also have among the highest WTE usage.  link

July 2012: Urbanization and population growth expected to fuel WTE projects.
By 2022, at least 261 million tons of MSW will be converted into energy on an annual basis, according to Pike's "Waste-to-Energy Technology Markets" report. An even more optimistic prediction suggests the figure could reach 396 million tons annually, the equivalent of 429 terawatt-hours (tWh) of power. "Ten years from now the world’s rapidly increasing urban population will generate nearly 3 billion tons of MSW per year, representing an estimated 240GW of untapped energy potential," says senior research analyst Mackinnon Lawrence. link

October 2012: Seeking a solution to New York's trash dilemma. New York City is thinking about diverting garbage from out-of-state landfills and using it to generate WTE electricity locally. The plan pits concerns about city spending and carbon emissions against fears of environmental injustice. link

This Energy Recovery Council link has the following information:

Waste-to-energy is a proven technology used globally to generate clean, renewable energy from the sustainable management of municipal solid waste (MSW). Progressive communities around the world employ strategies to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover energy from waste. With approximately 29% of America’s waste being recycled, 7.6%  processed at waste-to-energy facilities and 63.5%  landfilled, MSW is an abundant, valuable, and underutilized source of domestic energy.

By processing this material, waste-to-energy facilities:

  •  Produce renewable, baseload energy
  •  Reduce greenhouse gases
  •  Create good-paying, green jobs
  •   Operate with superior environmental performance
  •  Complement and enhance recycling goals  

Landfill problems

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces about 4.4 pounds of garbage a day, or a total of 1,600 pounds a year. (The US total is therefore close to 250 million tons per year.) This only takes into consideration the average household member and does not count industrial waste or commercial trash. If this sounds like a staggering number, you would be surprised to know that Americans are not the number one producers of garbage in the world. In Mexico, the average household produces 30% more garbage than in America. link   

May 2016: Living near landfills damage health. According to research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, health is at risk for those who live within five kilometres of a landfill site. The results showed a strong association between Hydrogen Sulphide (used as a surrogate for all pollutants co-emitted from the landfills) and deaths caused by lung cancer, as well as deaths and hospitalizations for respiratory diseases. The results were especially prominent in children. link

Why landfills are a necessity in developing nations. For developing countries the hierarchy that keeping the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill as tiny a percentage as possible must be turned upside down. The fact is that the first step of landfilling has not even been taken (or at least not taken efficiently) in most areas. Because despite the misconception, landfills are not open dumps. And in order to squelch the environmental and public health hazards that open dumps present for developing nations, landfills must be created first before other treatment technology can be put into place. A recycling plant can be set up, or a compost system, but the fact is that the rest of the waste must still go somewhere else. Without proper landfills, waste will be dumped throughout the city, creating even more hazardous problems for the years to come. link

According to a directive from the European Union, landfilling of combustible materials must be phased out within the decade. However, it is not clear that the capital investments required will be made by all of the member countries. Some of them have little WTE capacity and some - for example, Greece - none at all. The use of WTE amounts to 142 lbs per capita in Japan, 115 lbs in Singapore, and 48 lbs in the US. One of the newcomers to WTE is China, with seven plants in operation and an estimated annual capacity of 1.6 million metric tonnes per year.  link

July 2012: Landfills much greater source of GHGs than previously thought. Landfills, the current destination for a majority of the world’s trash, are a major source of methane. In 2009, the Sierra Club undertook a year-long due diligence. Peeling back the onion layers, its technical experts found that industry’s claims, that their operators captured most of the methane generated in landfills, and that landfill-gas-to-energy (LFGTE) miraculously converted lemons into lemonade, were as bogus as the ethanol deceit. In fact, landfills were responsible for almost five times more GHG emissions than understood. Previously landfills were held responsible for 1.6% of total man-made emissions (11th largest contributor of greenhouse gases). However new data shows landfills represent 7.5% of greenhouse gases, making landfills 4th largest contributor. link

Landfill recovery. The EPA says, "Even the best liner and leachate collection system will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration, and recent improvements in containment technologies suggest that releases may be delayed by many decades at some landfills. For this reason, the EPA is concerned that while corrective action may already have been triggered at many facilities, 30 years may be insufficient to detect releases at other landfills."   link    
landfills will eventually fail and leak leachate into ground and surface water. Plastics are not inert. State-of-the-art plastic (HDPE) landfill liners (1/10 inch or 100 mils thick) and plastic pipes allow chemicals and gases to pass through their membranes, become brittle, swell, and break down. The U.S. has 3,091 active landfills and over 10,000 old municipal landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  link 

Waste-to-energy incineration

Overview of WTE. While some people still confuse modern waste-to-energy plants with incinerators of the past, the environmental performance of the industry is beyond reproach. Studies have shown that communities that employ waste-to-energy technology have higher recycling rates than communities that do not utilize waste-to-energy. The recovery of ferrous and non-ferrous metals from waste-to-energy plants for recycling is strong and growing each year. In addition, numerous studies have determined that waste-to-energy plants actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere. Nowadays, waste-to-energy plants based on combustion technologies are highly efficient power plants that utilize municipal solid waste as their fuel rather than coal, oil or natural gas. Waste-to-energy plants recover the thermal energy contained in the trash in highly efficient boilers that generate steam that can then be sold directly to industrial customers, or used on-site to drive turbines for electricity production. WTE plants are highly efficient in harnessing the untapped energy potential of organic waste by converting the biodegradable fraction of the waste into high calorific value gases like methane. The digested portion of the waste is highly rich in nutrients and is widely used as biofertilizer in many parts of the world.  link   

June 2016: Pollution issues with WTE. Whether dioxin, mercury, lead and other toxins go out the stack, are captured, or end up in the ash that is left over after incineration, they’re still there. Nickolas John Themelis, an engineering professor at Columbia University and chairman of the Global Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council, argues that pollution concerns are overblown, saying “Studies have shown that the entire US WTE industry produces 3 grams of dioxin per year. . .by comparison, there are over 3,000 landfill fires reported every year, and they produce 1,400 grams of dioxin.”   link

What the EPA says on emissions:  Waste-to-energy facilities are subject to standards that are among the most stringent in the world. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, more than $1 billion was invested in upgrades to air quality control systems at America’s waste-to-energy facilities. The results were so dramatic that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote that the “upgrading of the emissions control systems of large combustors to exceed the requirements of the Clean Air Act Section 129 standards is an impressive accomplishment.” In addition to combustion controls, waste-to-energy facilities employ sophisticated air quality control equipment.   

The EPA has stated that waste-to-energy plants produce electricity with "less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity." Studies have determined that we can avoid nearly one ton of CO2 emissions for every ton of trash processed by a waste-to-energy plant rather than discarded conventionally. link

Worldwide, about 130 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) are combusted annually in over 600 waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities that produce electricity and steam for district heating and recovered metals for recycling. Since 1995, the global WTE industry increased by more than 16 million tonnes of MSW. Currently, there are WTE facilities in 35 nations, including large countries such as China and small ones such as Bermuda. Some of the newest plants are located in Asia. link    (A 'tonne' is used outside the US and is equivalent to 1,000 kg - about 2,204 lbs. A 'ton' is almost exclusively used in the US and
is 2,000 lbs.)

AD - anaerobic digestion. The most common waste-to-energy applications in the U.S. include the combustion of municipal solid waste (MSW), landfill gas-to-energy, and the digestion of farm waste or waste water. An often overlooked waste-to-energy resource, however, is mixed organic waste (for example, food and yard waste) anaerobic digestion (AD). AD technologies comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, so for now, we've used assumptions provided by a dry fermentation (that is a digester that accepts higher-solids waste) technology provider.
The EPA estimates that in 2008, 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (including organic and non-organic) was generated in the U.S. While 22 million tons of organic waste was diverted for composting, an estimated 43 million tons of organic waste was sent to landfills. The total electric and thermal power (assuming a combined heat and power application) associated with this organic waste is approximately 1 GWe, equivalent to serving close to 1 million homes. While composting may appear to be a direct competitor to AD for organic waste, the two are mutually beneficial because remaining digestate from the AD process can be composted and sold. link

WTE emissions: In the late 1980s, WTE plants were listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as major sources of mercury and dioxin/furan emissions. However, in response to the Maximum Available Technology (MACT) regulations promulgated in 1995 by the US EPA, the US WTE industry spent more than one billion dollars in retrofitting pollution control systems and becoming one of the lowest emitters of high temperature processes. The US EPA recently affirmed that WTE plants in the US produce 2800 MW of electricity with less environmental impact that almost any other source of electricity. Columbia University researchers have estimated the WTE content equivalent to theoretically generating 82,000MW of electricity. link

Environmental benefits. Despite the great reduction in emissions attained by WTE facilities in the last 15 years, some environmental groups in the US continue to oppose new WTE facilities on principle, unaware that the only alternative for MSW disposal - landfills - have much larger environmental impacts. For every ton of waste landfilled, greenhouse gas emissions in the form of carbon dioxide increase by at least 1.3 tons. During the life of a modern landfill and for a mandated period after closure, aqueous effluents are collected and treated chemically; however, chemical reactions and volume decrease of the landfilled MSW can continue for decades and centuries. Thus, there is potential for future contamination of adjacent waters. It is for this reason that communities built on sandy soil, such as those in Long Island in New York State and the state of Florida have opted for WTE disposal of their MSW. link  

Is dioxin a problem? In Europe, waste-to-energy plants are strictly controlled. They comply with the most stringent emission limit values applied to any single industry, set out in the Waste Incineration Directive 2000/76/EC. While dioxins exist naturally in the environment the manmade ones come from a variety of combustion processes including steel mills, power plants, cement kilns, diesel vehicles, buses, open fires in the home, bonfires, barbeques, jet engines, forest fires. Emissions from Waste-to-Energy plants present just a tiny fraction of such emissions. Whereas in 1990 one third of all dioxin emissions in Germany came from Waste-to-Energy Plants, for the year 2000 the figure was less than 1%. link

USA information

June 2016: WTE in the USA. Today, 70 mass-burn plants in 21 states consume about 13% of the nation’s trash, down from a peak of 14.5% in 1990. Cumulatively they offer roughly 2.5 gigawatts of power in return, less than a tenth of what the U.S. solar industry produces. The most recent inventory available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that MSW incinerators released about 1% of the quantity of carcinogenic and highly toxic dioxin-like compounds in 2000 that they did just 13 years earlier. Yet by the 1980s the damage to incineration’s reputation was done, as far as many environmental groups and the public at large were concerned. And the battle lines drawn all those years ago remain largely intact today. So claims that these new technologies offer a panacea to waste management and a source of clean, renewable energy have met with skepticism and organized opposition in dozens of communities nationwide faced with proposals in recent years.nn link 

In the United States roughly 728,000 tons of garbage is collected daily - enough to fill 63,000 garbage trucks.  More details here

Europe & Asia

February 2016:  China to get world’s largest wte plantProposed for the mountainous region on the outskirts of Shenzhen, the waste-to-energy plant is expected to incinerate 5,000 tonnes of rubbish per day, approximately one third of the waste generated by the city's 20 million inhabitants each year. According to the Danish architects, the facility will utilise the most advanced technology in waste incineration and power generation. The huge circular building will be covered with photovoltaic panels, allowing the building to generate its own sustainable supply of energy. link

August 2009:  Europe leads the way on WTE. 
More evidence emerges that Europe is advancing more rapidly than other regions on the environmental front. It is the largest waste-to-energy plants market in the world, with well-developed infrastructure and more than 429 such incinerator facilities, A new analysis finds that this market earned revenue of $4.4 billion last year. The European Union's push to shift away from landfills through its Landfill Directive "has indirectly helped the waste-to-energy business" the report
says. (above -  Brescia WTE facility in Italy)   link    

To an even greater extent than in the United States, waste-to-energy has thrived in Europe and Asia as the preeminent method of waste disposal. Lauding waste-to-energy for its ability to reduce the volume of waste in an environmentally-friendly manner, generate valuable energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, European nations rely on waste-to-energy as the preferred method of waste disposal. In fact, the European Union has issued a legally binding requirement for its member States to limit the landfilling of biodegradable waste. According to the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP), Europe currently treats 50 million ton of wastes at waste-to-energy plants each year, generating an amount of energy that can supply electricity for 27 million people or heat for 13 million people. Upcoming changes to EU legislation will have a profound impact on how much further the technology will help achieve environmental protection goals. link

January 2016: UAE signs deal to develop waste-to-energy sector. The United Arab Emirates government has a target to divert waste from landfills by 75% by 2021. “Dumping waste in landfills is not desirable, so finding innovative ways to release the embodied energy in waste is crucial if we are to address the sustainability challenges of increased urbanization and consumerism.” said Masdar chief executive Dr Belhoul. link

September4 2013: Oslo is one of the greenest cities in the world, with plans to halve its carbon emissions by 2020. Key to achieving this is the country's biggest energy recovery facility, the Klemetsrud plant, which generates energy by burning rubbish. At full capacity, the plant will provide all the heat and electricity for Oslo's schools and heat for 56,000 homes. link  (video)

Denmark. According to EPA and Eurostat figures, Denmark recycles 42% of its waste and burns 54% in heat and power stations. The US, by comparison, recycles 33% while only 13% is used in waste-to-energy incinerators. The majority of US trash – 54% – ends up in landfills, compared to only 4% in Denmark. More on Denmark's incinerator story here.  

April 2010: Europe finds clean energy in trash – U.S. lags.  Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago. In that time, such plants have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark. 
Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting CO2 emissions. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.  Denmark now has 29 such plants, serving 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people, and 10 more are planned or under construction. Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the pack in expanding them and building new ones. link

April 2015: Rapid growth in China’s waste-to-energy market. China’s waste incineration sector has experienced rapid growth from 2011 to 2015. Chinese waste-to-energy plants that have either been operational or under construction are expected to number over 300 by the end of 2015, when China’s annual solid waste incineration capacity is forecast to reach 100 million tons, according to the government’s guidelines. Currently, China has 20 waste-to-energy plants in operation spread across 15 cities. China had 138 waste incineration plants in operation in 2012 with aggregate processing volume exceeding 35 million tons, making China the country with the world’s largest amount of waste incineration, according to data from the National Center of Solid Waste Management, a research unit under the Ministry of Environmental Protection. link

During 2006, 14.3% of Netherland's renewables came from WTE plants, as did 13.3% for Belgium and 12.5% in Denmark. link


From ZeroWasteAmerica.org comes this definition of zero-waste:
zero-waste is the recycling of all materials back into nature or the marketplace
in a manner that protects human health and the environment.

Zero waste is a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st Century; it is not simply about putting an end to landfilling. Aiming for zero waste is not an end-of-pipe solution. That is why it heralds fundamental change. Aiming for zero waste means designing products and packaging with reuse and recycling in mind. It means ending subsidies for wasting. It means closing the gap between landfill prices and their true costs. It means making manufacturers take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products and packaging. Zero waste efforts, just like recycling efforts before, will change the face of solid waste management in the future. Instead of managing wastes, we will manage resources and strive to eliminate waste.     - Institute for Local Self Reliance   
 More at ecocycle.org

The Zero Waste Alliance has been formed to promote the use of Zero Waste strategies. link

August 2016: The complicated journey to zero waste. Americans throw away 4.4 pounds of trash per day. Around 50% of the 254 million tons of waste the United States produces is sent to one of the 2,000 active landfills across the country. The rest of the waste is recycled, composted, or incinerated. Around 15% of household garbage is incinerated. The incinerators of today with pollution controls and energy recovery have made leaps forward compared to the incinerators of the past, which did not have any control over combustion whatsoever. That’s in part due to the Clean Air Act amendments in the 1990s, which established the maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standards. Pollutants like mercury, cadmium, lead, chlorinated dibenzodioxins, dibenzofurans, have been reduced by 94 to 99% between 1990 and 2005. link

Suggested sites for WTE cewep.com  seas.columbia.edu

Also see Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council -   link

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