Waste to Energy

Ever wondered if creating energy from waste is a good thing?

Incineration (and creating energy from the process) should be a ‘last resort’ method of waste disposal chosen, and only after the maximum amount of recycling and compostables has been extracted from the waste stream.

Waste to Energy (W2E) processing has been gaining popularity around the world. Before including W2E as a strategy for your event, it is important you understand the options and the impacts.

Generally, W2E processing includes incineration and/or gasification. 

Incineration

Energy produced from the incineration process is converted into electricity, often through heated boiling water converted into steam to drive electricity turbines. In order to maximise effectiveness of this process, heat is captured and redistributed to local buildings. Incineration based W2E facilities are best in cold climates where heat generated can be effectively used.

Known problems associated with incineration-based W2E are, pollutants released into the atmosphere as waste is burnt, along with higher density, and therefore higher toxicity level, in the remaining pollutants in the remaining solid matter.

Pyrolysis/Gasification

Waste is ‘burnt’ in the absence of oxygen through a process called pyrolysis, and ‘syngas’ is produced. This resulting gas/liquid which can be used in combustion generators as a fuel to produce electricity. 

Carbon neutral?

Incinerator supporters see the burning of food waste, green waste, paper and wood as carbon neutral. Because they consider it part of the natural carbon cycle, they don’t include emissions from these sources in their data.

In fact, the emissions triggered from this type of processing is significant and it comes with a double-cost to the environment with products that could be reintroduced into the materials economy withdrawn which means the ongoing need for virgin materials. 

Remember, there is a higher purpose for recyclables and compostables, and it is important you not ignore CO2 that comes out of an incinerators smoke stack!

The resulting energy produced via the W2E method is labelled ‘green’ or ‘renewable’ energy, because it is using materials that would otherwise have ended up in landfills. Also, the carbon which is embodied in the waste material is ‘recent carbon’ currently in the carbon cycle, rather than ‘ancient carbon’ (fossil fuel).

You have the power to decide if W2E sends a positive message for your event, or if it is simply ‘GreenWashing’.

Is it a good option?

The problem is, some countries are leapfrogging recycling and sending materials straight for incineration, opting for ‘energy from waste’ or ‘waste to energy’ processing. This option of waste processing can undermine recycling projects in nations where citizens are not predisposed towards the recycling habit.

Waste to energy processing does not do anything to encourage the reduction of waste created, or consumption in the first place. In fact it requires feedstock, and for-profit facilities need a certain amount of volume of throughput to make their businesses financially viable. If they have agreements of waste ‘supply’ from households within municipalities, the local Council have an obligation to deliver contracted volumes of waste in order to maintain the commercial agreement.

This flies in the face of any waste-reduction campaigns that could be in place.

Inform yourself of the issues, do further research into the various options available in your area and make a decision on whether or not to support waste to energy.

Many European countries have focused on maximising recycling opportunities and sending only the waste that cannot be used as a secondary raw material, to incineration. 

To avoid creating GHG emissions from waste disposal and to support avoiding the unnecessary consumption of virgin materials, reconsider sending compostable or recyclable waste to landfill.

The problem with waste to energy

If compostables and recyclables end up in an incinerator to be burnt, the resulting CO2 emissions enter the atmosphere at a higher rate than the emission produced from a coal fuelled power station.

Other considerations we want to avoid include:

  • Having an option for waste disposal such as energy generation from incineration, can encourage guilt free single use and a throw away mentality. Umm… no.
  • It does nothing to encourage frugal consumption. It is critical we reduce consumption.
  • If a consumer knows their energy is coming from ‘green’ sources, then they will not have a moral pressure to conserve energy. Another area we need to reduce consumption.
  • It discourages recyclable and compostable material from being used for its highest purpose. Reintroducing materials back into the resource economy is fundamental.
  • If timber and paper products are lost from the recycling process to incineration, new virgin materials now need to enter the system. As above.

I have also seen first hand, laziness set in, with a disregard for materials recovery because ‘it will produce energy’. To the right is an enormous pile of single-use carpet for example, which went to incineration, instead of recycling. Unacceptable

Further Reading