Does waste-to-energy make sense?

The city of Copenhagen has been working on a project that could set a precedent for cities around the world. In 2017, the city will finish building the Amager Bakke (Amager Slope), a waste-to-energy incinerator.

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, head of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), designed the plant, which will also act as a year-round ski slope. The Amager Bakke will cost over $650 million to build and is expected to burn over 25% of Denmark’s waste, providing hundreds of thousands of homes in Copenhagen with power. For every ton of CO2 generated by the facility, a smokestack will release a massive ring of steam (not smoke) into the air, allowing people to visualize the carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

Other countries around the world are jumping on the waste-to-energy bandwagon as well. Here in the United States, where more trash is generated per capita than any other country in the world, waste-to-energy incinerators are also being seriously considered in certain regions. The first new garbage incinerator built in the nation in over 20 years has just recently started to undergo test burning in West Palm Beach, Florida, and it is expected to burn up to 3,000 tons of trash per day. Curtis Bay, a neighborhood in Baltimore, is also considering the idea. The Curtis Bay plant will even top West Palm Beach, incinerating a projected 4,000 tons of waste per day.

One obvious benefit of these waste-to-energy incinerators is that they have massive energy potential. Amager Bakke, for example, is expected to provide power for about 150,000 homes. Waste that would otherwise end up landfilled is instead used to generate power. Another interesting yet probably unknown benefit is that the leftover ash from the incineration process – which can amount to nearly 80,000 tons a day – can be used as landfill cover.

Kojotisko/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While waste-to-energy incineration sounds helpful, it is important to consider the downsides as well, and there are many. Pollution concerns, for instance, will never disappear from the discussion, as even the most advanced incinerators release carbon dioxide and air pollutants. People are concerned for their health, and many will oppose incinerators near their residences if given the chance.

Waste-to-energy also acts as a disincentive to develop more sustainable waste reduction strategies. It may work better in the short term with strict pollution standards and as a last-resort for waste disposal, but it does not offer us a sustainable long-term solution. Preserving material (through recycling and reuse) already in circulation is a key component of sustainable development. Burning finite resources may not be the best approach down the line.

Besides, we have a practically unlimited supply of renewable energy (especially solar) – we just haven’t developed the infrastructure required to properly capture and store it on a large scale. While waste-to-energy can certainly generate short-term energy with accessible materials (i.e. waste), renewables are where key investments really need to be made.

Groume/CC BY-SA 2.0

With all of this in mind, it is important to carefully consider whether or not the waste-to-energy is a realistic approach to the management of our household, commercial, and industrial solid waste. While it can certainly provide a practical use for waste that would otherwise be resigned to a landfill, the long-term benefits of waste-to-energy are questionable.

Even if pollution control technology continues improving, incinerators could continue posing a significant environmental burden. Short-term energy concerns can seem daunting to overcome, but we are already seeing impressive progress with renewable energy options like solar and wind. As more municipalities and governments start looking to waste-to-energy as the way forward, it would be wise for us to seriously catalog the implications of their adoption farther down the road.

Tags: Air Pollution | Pollution | Waste

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