Municipal Solid Waste: To the Landfill or the Incinerator?

by Nadja Redmond

A global phenomenon is slowly beginning to pick up traction and conversation in the United States: energy recovery through use of waste to energy facilities. WtE, the waste management process that involves generating electricity and/or heat from waste through combustion, is already widely used in Europe. By 2014, Europe had 452 such facilities [http://www.cewep.eu/information/data/studies/m_1488], and compared to the United States’ 71, it is no secret there is an ongoing debate on whether WtE facilities are effective or hazardous for the environment and for the communities they inhabit. When the country produces over 250 million tons of municipal solid waste a year [https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=25732], alternative routes of waste management and energy recovery that utilizes that waste that have proved effective overseas are worth considering.

Advocates and some sustainability researchers argue waste to energy is the best process for the environment to eliminate waste, because of the long-term benefits of less landfill use and proper disposal of waste materials that are not recyclable. Opponents argue the emissions from WtE plants only add to the pollution already present in the atmosphere. A recent fire at a plant in Maryland at a Covanta operated facility, which maintains that the conditions of the facility did not cause the fire, also causes speculations about the process among opponents. In

Baltimore specifically, these plants are blamed for failure to meet federal ground ozone level standards. According to the EPA, these plants actually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions as compared to landfills, which only proves advocates and opponents alike need to learn more about the benefits of these types of facilities. Covanta chief officer Paul Gilman stresses the importance of the facility in an ongoing investigation. For example, its partnerships with American Airlines and Subaru allow the corporations to contribute zero waste to landfills because of the company’s initiatives with hard to dispose of materials. The success of these initiatives is being recognized slowly around the country, with Clean Harbors completing an expansion of a waste incineration plant in South Arkansas recently. This is the first construction in many years since the debate on renewable energy came to light. [http://www.environmentalleader.com/2017/01/waste-to-energy-facilities-under-fire/].

 

 

References: EPA – https://www.epa.gov/smm/advancing-sustainable-materials-management-facts-and-figures

 

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