Incinerating garbage for energy production isn’t a dumpster fire

Nick Behling

With President Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, it might seem as if we are returning to the dark ages: away from innovation and solutions that can better our planet. But don’t despair, we still have plenty of forward-thinking people. In fact, over 300 mayors, including Steve Adler, have already committed to continue adopting and honoring the goals present in the Accord.

Many challenges face this coalition of mayors and concerned citizens. One is the issue of how to handle solid waste. In 2014 alone, the United States generated 258 million tons of municipal solid waste, or a staggering 1,600 pounds of waste per person. Around a third of that waste was recycled, with the rest sent to landfills.

Another daunting challenge is the issue of energy consumption. As of 2010, each person in the United States consumed, on average, 13,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. 

With our carelessness in waste management and the continuous depletion of our fossil fuels, we must turn to new methods of waste management and energy generation. One way to tackle both of these issues is through waste incineration.

While waste incineration, or “Waste-to-Energy,” has yet to be embraced in Texas, other American cities, as well as many countries in the European Union, have been burning their garbage for years. According to the Swedish Institute, 50 percent of Sweden’s household waste is burnt to create energy, and 49 percent of that waste is recycled. Thanks to waste incineration, Sweden puts only 1 percent of its waste into landfills.

Opponents of Waste-to-Energy claim that burning garbage is inefficient, that it will increase greenhouse gases emissions, and that it can’t compete with the “cheap” cost of dumping waste into landfills.

For each ton of garbage converted to energy via incineration (around 500 kilowatt-hours), we avoid burning one-third of a ton of coal. Isn’t it better to burn something of which we have an endless supply, i.e., garbage, than to burn something with a finite supply, i.e., coal?

Back in 2007, all of the Waste-to-Energy plants in Sweden produced the energy equivalent of 7 million barrels of oil, which cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 2.2 million tons. Thanks to state-of-the-art equipment, such as electrostatic filters and scrubbers that limit the amount of air pollution generated, the “smoke” that’s emitted from these incineration plants is comprised of 99.9 percent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water vapor.

The cost of placing waste into landfills is more expensive than one might expect. Usage, or “tipping”, fees in the United States are around $50 per ton of waste dumped. In addition, the cost of transporting waste is staggering. For example, in 2009, New York City spent over $300 million in transporting more than 4 million tons of waste to landfills. If the average Waste-to-Energy plant in the United States generates 563 kilowatt-hours of energy per ton of waste burnt, imagine how much energy and money could be supplied and saved in New York City if a fraction of its waste was incinerated.

On top of all that, Waste-to-Energy facilities are cost-efficient. For instance, the initial cost to build an incineration plant in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was $135 million. Serving 500,000-plus people, the 34-megawatt facility has eliminated 9 million tons of waste and generated over 5.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. The fact that the county generated almost $300 million in electric revenue since its grand opening in 1991 is icing on the cake.

Because of its booming population and abundance of land, Austin is a good candidate for adopting Waste-to-Energy technologies. If implemented correctly, Waste-to-Energy plants can generate significant revenue and energy for the city for years to come.

It’s possible that policymakers in Texas look at Waste-to-Energy with suspicion and are unaware of the benefits of waste incineration, as there are currently no Waste-to-Energy plants in Texas. However, if we can convince our policymakers to follow in the footsteps of Sweden and Lancaster County, maybe someday Austin – and other cities in Texas – will follow suit and help pave the way for a better tomorrow.