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Why is Waste-to-Energy So Confusing for Americans?

By Martin Lemos

The numbers are still being crunched, but early figures suggest that every second a large number of Americans will turn to their colleagues and ask: “Does this get recycled?”

Bafflement characterizes our individual and collective thinking on waste. Environmental campaigns in the U.S. succeeded in increasing recycling rates from 10 percent in the 1980s to nearly 40 percent today, but no unified program emerged to address the remaining trash.

Americans now dispose of nearly half a ton of waste every year. Consumers choose where to source their food, but relatively few of us are conscious wasters. A compost bin in the backyard and diligent recycling are rare. The global response is just as disastrous. As a result, 270,000 tons of plastic is currently floating in our oceans, according to recent reports.

Our cluelessness as to what happens after the waste bag is placed on the curb is nowhere more evidenced than in the fuzzy logic of our waste-to-energy (WTE) debate.

Environmentalists themselves are divided on WTE plants. Early in 2014, a group of concerned New York environmentalists, public health advocates and business groups wrote to the U.S. Department of Energy opposing the classification of WTE as a renewable energy. Any over-reliance on WTE, these groups argued, would limit progress towards a zero-waste future. In other words: Renewable energy cannot be dependent on trash, as trash should not be a renewable resource.

Proponents of WTE plants, including many environmentalists, point to the greenhouse gas emissions caused by transporting waste to landfills and by landfills themselves, which account for 11 percent of global methane emissions. Capturing the methane and burning it to create usable energy are key components of reducing global warming, proponents say. This faction of environmentalists argues, then, that given modest gains in recycling -- and the absence of strong reuse or upcycle campaigns -- the best current opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions comes from WTE plants.

Waste-to-energy has never been particularly popular in the U.S., which has 89 WTE plants compared to Europe’s 431. This situation is not a result of environmentalist gridlock, however. The stance of the zero-waste environmentalists is contradicted by the example of Germany, which has combined a world-leading rate of recycling and WTE plant installations. The U.S. lags on WTE plants because, unlike European nations, landfilling costs are much lower here. Public perception of the limitless American landscape allowed landfills not to have to internalize their environmental impact. Along with drastically lower transport costs, landfills have been the cheapest option for our trash.

That’s changing. The continuing construction of WTE plants in Europe refined the design of these plants. Incinerators are now cleaner and more cost-effective. Large-scale plants like Isseane in Paris, just a mile from the Eiffel Tower, dispel any myth that WTE plants are public nuisances that foul the air and pollute with sound and ash. Innovative designs like the recently constructed Roskilde, Denmark facility show how these plants can not only produce heating for residents, but also be visually striking. An in-construction project in Copenhagen, named Amager Bakke, will feature a ski slope on the roof of the plant. WTE plants are no longer a question of economics, but aesthetics.

Municipalities are considering larger WTE facilities, incorporating such renewable WTE components as anaerobic digesters. Europe recognized that WTE plants faced major obstruction from the conventional waste management sector and attendant corruption. Its leadership in renewable waste energy came from political initiatives that will eliminate all landfills by 2050. Americans are unlikely to see any similar goal proposed, certainly not on the national level or any time soon.

With new carbon emissions goals proposed, WTE plants provide a tremendous opportunity to offset carbon and methane emissions -- all while creating a renewable energy economy. Landfilling costs are slated to rise steadily in the coming decades, and as the trend in consolidation of facilities continues, transports are expected to rise dramatically as municipalities cart their trash further and further away. Even with no emission goals, the value of investing in WTE to mitigate future waste disposal costs is becoming clearer to American cities.

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