Are waste-to-energy plants the green solution to traditional landfills?

What is waste-to-energy?
Waste-to-energy is a relatively new idea. In simple terms, it burns common waste at incredibly high temperatures to produce steam which moves a turbine, consequentially, generating electricity that can be used to power houses, factories, buildings etc. By burning the waste, the overall volume of the matter declines which also requires less space for disposing of. If waste-to-energy plants are done correctly, it could be a game-changer in destroying tangible waste and ending traditional landfills.

The history of incinerators:
Waste-to-energy plants burn trash at high temperatures to generate energy for the grid. The machine that burns the waste is commonly known as an “incinerator”. Incinerators aren’t new technology and have been used for almost 150 years. However, in years gone by, incinerators were used to burn household rubbish which initially seemed like a clever and effective means of reducing waste, but actually had profound consequences for the environment.

The pollutants that were released from the incinerators were never filtered prior to leaving the smokestacks, which unleashed large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions; dangerous examples like black carbon which has a global warming effect of between 460 – 1,500 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2). The potential damage of incinerators today in waste-to-energy plants could easily be as damaging as they were in the past. However, if the world implements strong environmental policies and follows in the footsteps of current waste-to-energy leaders, this could perhaps be the convenient and planet-conscious idea we need.

Waste-to-energy in Singapore:
In Singapore, the city’s waste is collected and sent to 1 of 4 large waste-to-energy facilities in the country. There, the waste is dropped into a large underground pit and gradually accumulated by a crane. The crane collects the waste to place into the incinerator. There, the trash is burned at around 850oC – 1000oC (1,470oF – 1830oF) and, as a result, turns into ash; an impressive 90% volume reduction in fact. As the pollutants travel up the smokestacks, they are treated prior to escaping to ensure no pollution is created in the process.

The waste that doesn’t burn (e.g. metal), is picked out of the incinerator and sent to a specialised recycling facility. The rest of the waste – in the form of ash – is collected and placed into trucks to be disposed of in a large artificial lake sealed off from the ocean. The lake is known as Semakau landfill and was built in 1999, costing almost $500 million dollars. Surrounding the landfill are mangrove plants and vibrant coral species that act as natural water filtration systems when the ash is disposed of in the water. As the landfill begins to rise, much of the water is sent to a treatment plant and disposed of in the ocean adjacent to the landfill.

Each waste-to-energy plant in Singapore can burn an average of 3,000 tons of waste daily; producing 2% – 3% of the energy demand in Singapore annually. Semakau landfill is projected to fill by 2035 so discussions are underway on how to maintain the viability of the operations. One such proposal is to continue discarding quantities of ash into Semakau landfill, but redirect the vast majority of ash to be recycled into NEWSand; a construction material that can be used to create non-structural concrete like footpaths or pavements.

Incineration, if done correctly as in Singapore, could be an environmentally- and socially-conscious way of minimising land consumption, whilst reducing tangible waste and providing clean energy to the grid.

How much is the waste-to-energy (WTE) industry worth?
In 2019, the waste-to-energy market was worth around $46.5 billion AUD ($35.1 billion USD) and is projected to reach $66.4 billion AUD ($50.1 billion USD) by 2027 meaning it’s growing at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 4.6% from 2020 to 2027. However, some other organisations believe that these statistics might be undervaluing the industry with some saying the CAGR could be higher at around 7.4%. Either way, the industry is certainly growing and receiving further interest from governments globally as more waste-to-energy plants are built every year.

The end of traditional landfills:
When most people picture landfills, it’s an unpleasant sight: disgusting piles of trash and large machines constantly moving, filtering and disposing of more waste. However, what happens if we could end those polluting landmarks once and for all?

Semakau landfill is a very large lake with a perimeter of 7 kilometres (4.3 miles), however, other cities could adjust the sizes to suit their waste needs and geographic location. By moving to this new model of waste management, land consumption would dwindle. In the United States, for example, the average landfill size has a perimeter of 6.23 kilometres (3.87 miles) and currently, there are over 1,250 active landfills in the country. That’s a considerable amount of land wasted for waste.

Over 100,000 marine animals die due to tangible pollution every year including the many thousands of terrestrial animals. Waste-to-energy plants, contrarily, could help ease the current strain on the environment and wildlife from conventional landfills. Not only that but visually appear indistinguishable from ordinary lakes.

Could all countries execute waste-to-energy?
One of the main issues with waste-to-energy plants is cost. The average waste-to-energy plant costs around $1.3 billion AUD ($1 billion USD) which is likely out of reach for poorer nations especially when the alternative is a viable landfill. Another problem is if the facilities are not continuously monitored and looked after to the highest standard. As mentioned previously, waste-to-energy could work but if governments and companies don’t commit to strong policies ensuring emission reduction at the least, then it defeats the purpose of the system altogether.

Another issue facing countries with waste-to-energy is that the waste content differs per country. In India, over 50% of the waste produced is organic matter such as food scraps or garden waste which is too difficult to burn. So in India, compost facilities would serve their waste management and environmental interests better than waste-to-energy. For the majority of countries, waste-to-energy could certainly work. However, this isn’t a “one size fits all” scenario.

What countries are leading in waste-to-energy?
Over 80% of waste-to-energy dominance is in wealthy, developed countries such as Japan, the United States, France, Germany, Singapore, Sweden and Denmark. These countries are and will continue to lead the race for some time as more facilities arise. These countries are typically increasing the number of facilities for 2 reasons; one being large countries like the United States is (and should be) trying to reduce their unsustainable volume of annual waste sent to landfills, whilst also serving as a role model for the rest of the world. The second being smaller countries like Denmark and Japan are obligated to use waste-to-energy to keep up with rising energy demands across the country.

The fine line for waste-to-energy:
As mentioned numerous times, waste-to-energy could go horribly wrong if not sustainably managed with strong policies in place. However, the correct alternative provides the world with another green form of energy, all whilst destroying unwanted waste at the same time. It’s unfortunately a very fine line though. Years prior, incinerators produced millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions with those sorts of scenes possibly replicated today with potentially even greater implications. Whether the process is done well or poorly is entirely up to each country, though hopefully, those that adopt this change will use it to serve the best interest of the people and planet.

Will waste-to-energy create jobs?
Like any new industry, more jobs are created. In Western Australia, the first waste-to-energy plant is set to be built creating almost 1,000 additional jobs in just the construction phase of the facility with around 100 jobs when in operation. Not only is it great to increase job opportunities, but jobs in green industries like these often increase job numbers by an average of 9 times more than jobs in landfills or other dirty industries. This new industry will see an increase in jobs, placing more people in greater financial positions and increasing work in – hopefully – green facilities.

This means of dealing with waste could revolutionise the industry. However, in the end, the true solution to our global waste catastrophe is to eliminate it altogether. Though, that is a distant dream and one that will require further efforts on behalf of companies and governments. In the meantime, a solution ought to be found. The next best thing, coupled with recycling and composting, might just be waste-to-energy.

Released on the 19th of November 2021. -KJDJ
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