Everybody is familiar with the idea of recycling and landfills. Most of us just assume that whatever we put in our garbage can ends up in a landfill. However, you might be surprised to learn that over 10% of our waste is incinerated for energy production. Often referred to as Waste-To-Energy (WTE) it can be a major source of energy production. There are other countries like Sweden that are burning closer to 49% of their waste and are able to produce large amounts of their energy requirements.
You might be wondering how exactly waste incineration works. The process starts with preparing the waste. Large items and recyclables such as metal are removed and the remaining waste is typically shredded before being sent into the incinerator. The waste is then combusted in an oxygen rich chamber. Temperatures from 1,800-2,200 degrees Fahrenheit are used to assure that nothing but gas and ash is left behind.
The gas created in this process is cooled using water, which creates steam. That steam is used to power electrical generators. The gas is then processed with various filtration methods. Any solids made from this process, along with the ash from incineration, are sent to landfills.
People often wonder if this process is bad for the environment. However, from everything I have read, the filter systems incinerator facilities use keep toxic gases below any standards set by the EPA. There are even some studies that claim that Incinerators are a better environmental option than landfills. Despite this, incineration isn’t a viable option to replace all landfill waste. We still need a way to dispose of the by-products of the incineration process.
However the positives of the incineration process shouldn’t be overlooked. Electricity production still amounts to the largest contributor of greenhouse gas production at 25% of the total production according to the EPA. With alternative sources of energy production such as incineration, we have less damaging ways to produce our energy needs. It is also a great way to reduce the total mass sent to landfills. It’s estimated that only 15-25% of the weight after incineration is left and sent to the landfill.
Incineration and the waste-to-energy process aren’t a perfect long-term solution. Many people have claimed that incinerators detract from recycling and waste reduction efforts, since the business model of an incinerator is based on the need to be consistently fed waste. The facility themselves are expensive to establish and need to be consistently running in order to be financially viable. This has led to countries like Sweden importing trash for them to burn. This can deter waste from being sent to recycling and reduces the pressure to reduce waste production.
Waste-To-Energy is clearly a complicated issue, but has a lot of potential value to offer when it comes to our waste. But what do you think? Does Waste-To-Energy sound like a better alternative than simply using landfills? Let me know in the comment section below.