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Waste to Energy: The Environmentally Responsible Waste Solution Overlooked in the U.S.

WTE as a Solution for Non-Recyclable Waste

John Clark | Waste to Energy Expert
John Clark

Our John Clark explains why the U.S. is behind the global market on waste to energy as a solution for non-recyclable waste.

John is a waste to energy expert. He’s worked on 49 of the 73 currently operating North American WTE plants as an operator and plant manager, and as an engineer providing engineering, construction monitoring, operations, startup and testing support. Last year he was honored with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Floyd Hasselriis Pioneer Award in recognition of his pioneering work and outstanding contributions to thermal treatment technologies.

Q: John, you’re a proponent of waste to energy facilities at a time when some of the U.S. plants are shutting down. Why are you supportive of WTE as an option for waste processing?

A: WTE recovers energy and metals that would otherwise be buried in a landfill. Each person in the U.S. throws away about three quarters of a ton of garbage each year. That has about the same energy content as 50 gallons of heating oil – energy we’re burying in landfills. We should be trying to recover that energy rather than bury it. 

On a life-cycle emissions basis, WTE has been acknowledged by many, including the U.S. EPA, to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 1 ton of CO2-equivalent for every ton of trash burned when compared to landfilling, which is the predominant disposal option still practiced in the U.S. Looking at the CO2 emission rates for fossil fuel-fired systems, according to the U.S. EPA, WTE has the lowest emission rate per megawatt hour — even less than natural gas (I do caveat this by saying this only counts the emissions from the non-biogenic fraction of the waste). 

Q: What’s the state of WTE in the U.S. vs. globally? 

A: There are over 600 WTE plants operating in 18 European countries, and more than 2,000 plants worldwide. The international WTE market is expanding with new facilities in Denmark, Italy, Spain, England, Ireland, Finland, China, Singapore, Australia and Canada, among other countries. Germany and France have plants operating at capacity. Sweden is a global leader in waste management, recycling nearly half its waste, and recovering the energy from half the waste in their 33 WTE facilities, leaving only around 1 percent to be landfilled.

WTE is struggling in North America. Here in the U.S., 73 WTE plants are currently operating, down from 90 in 2009, recovering the energy from less than 10 percent of our waste. U.S. plants are shutting down and new ones aren’t being built. 

New WTE facilities are not the polluting incinerators of old. The last of the true incinerators, with screens on the top of the stack to capture particulate and no energy recovery or acid gas control, have been shut down for over 40 years. Today’s WTE facilities use advanced combustion controls, advanced pollution controls and efficient steam cycles to produce renewable electricity and heat. They could use some rebranding, and a catchier name like Advanced Thermal Processing Facilities. Even 40 years after the last true incinerator was shut down, it’s tough to shake the incinerator stigma and promote the evidence that shows WTE plants are a benefit to the environment. 

Q: Why the difference between the U.S. and other countries? 

A: Landfills can be much less expensive than WTE, with some landfills charging less than $30 per ton of waste — and we have a lot of open land in the U.S. The mindset is often “out of sight, out of mind.” Additionally, energy costs are low in the U.S., so energy produced by our WTE facilities doesn’t have the value it does in other parts of the world. To break even, a new, 2,500 ton-per-day facility would need to get a tipping fee of at least $100 per ton. WTE may be better choice for the environment, but it’s unlikely to thrive when U.S. residents would have to pay a premium to take waste to a WTE facility.  

In other countries, policy decisions encourage residents to avoid landfilling by instituting landfill fees. The United Kingdom currently assesses a landfill tax of 91 pounds per ton – that’s $110 per ton. And this is a tax, in addition to gate fees! Australia follows a similar approach. As result, a number of waste plants are being built in those countries. 

On the electric revenue side, many of our U.S. facilities are only getting 2 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour. Every extra penny we could get for our electricity would reduce the tipping fee by about $6 per ton. Other countries offer very attractive incentive rates for renewable energy credits, including electricity from WTE. Credits can be up to 10 cents per kilowatt hour, reducing required tipping fees by $60 per ton! Incentives for electricity from WTE should be considered equitably alongside solar and wind credits in this country. 

Q: Have any new WTE plants been built recently in North America? 

A: Yes. In 2015, a new 3,000 tpd mass burn plant was added to an existing 2,000 tpd facility in Florida. It’s the first U.S. greenfield WTE plant built in 15 years. The facility has additional air pollution control equipment, including selective catalytic reduction, which further reduces NOx and dioxin emissions, but does increase capital and operating costs. The plant was successful in negotiating a favorable power contract, and Florida’s higher tipping fees (due to landfill constraints) encourage the use of WTE facilities. 

In Hawaii, an additional unit was added to the Honolulu Facility in 2012. Now, the facility can process all of Oahu’s non-recyclable waste. In Canada, the Durham York Energy Centre was commissioned in 2015. There is some limited interest in other locations, but the path from concept to operation for a WTE facility can be long and challenging.

Q: What’s the cost of WTE at a more personal level? 

A: As I mentioned earlier, every person in the U.S. is responsible for about three quarters of a ton of waste per year. If we would be willing to pay an extra $30 per ton of the waste we generate, WTE could be competitive with landfills. That equates to about $20 per person per year to support an energy efficient, CO2-reducing, landfill-saving Advanced Thermal Processing Facility. $20 per year, that’s what many people spend in a single week for their morning coffee!

Q: How can U.S. proponents of WTE take action? What’s your rally call? 

A: To become a leader, the U.S. needs political champions like those in Canada and Europe. We need to value the partnership of recycling and WTE as the best long-term solution for our waste. To grow again, the industry needs political and legislative support in the form of energy incentives or credits, or landfill taxes to discourage landfilling valuable potential resources. 

After recycling, I do believe WTE is the best solution for processing residual waste. No matter how much we reduce, reuse and recycle, there will always be a fraction of solid waste that has reached the lowest value in the system. The safest, cleanest and most efficient option to treat these residuals is to add a fourth “R” for recovery through Advanced Thermal Processing.