Myths and Misconceptions about Waste-to-Energy

Myths and Misconceptions about Waste-to-Energy

Despite the fact that waste-to-energy technology is becoming an increasingly important part of sustainable waste management programs all around the world, many misconceptions still surround this important waste treatment method. Read on to learn the facts behind some of the most persistent myths associated with the waste-to-energy industry.


MYTH: Waste-to-energy facilities pollute the environment and contribute to climate change.

garbage power plantFACT: In the US, waste-to-energy facilities are subject to rigorous air pollution control standards developed by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act. Before they can be built, all new facilities must demonstrate that they can meet these strict standards using the best control technology possible. Likewise, existing facilities must be retrofitted or upgraded to the highest level of control technology or they will be closed down. Consequently, waste-to-energy has been described as one of the world’s cleanest sources of power.

Furthermore, far from contributing to climate change, waste-to-energy technologies actually help cut down on the vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions produced by landfills. Studies have shown that for every ton of trash processed, waste-to-energy technologies reduce by one ton the amount of carbon dioxide equivalents that would have been generated by landfills. Carbon dioxide equivalents include carbon dioxide itself as well as methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2.


MYTH: Waste-to-energy discourages recycling.

FACT: Critics of waste-to-energy fear that consumers will decrease their participation in municipal recycling programs if they know that their household waste will be used to produce energy rather than simply ending up in the landfill. In fact, waste-to-energy facilities complement, rather than compete with, recycling efforts. According to studies, communities with waste-to-energy plants actually recycle a greater percentage of solid municipal waste than communities without these facilities.

Furthermore, waste-to-energy plants involve greater materials recovery efforts in order to prevent unsuitable material from being incinerated in the energy conversion process. Because of this, waste-to-energy facilities can ensure that all recyclable materials are sent to recycling facilities, even if consumers have disposed of them in their household waste. For example, roughly 750,000 tons of ferrous metals that would otherwise languish in landfills are recovered every year at waste-to-energy facilities.


MYTH: Waste-to-energy projects are too expensive.

FACT: The cost of the innovative technologies that waste-to-energy facilities rely on has decreased substantially in recent years. As a result, when proper, efficient designs and industry best practices are used in the development and operation of a waste-to-energy facility, this waste management method can be highly competitive when compared with the costs of safely treating waste using other methods like landfilling, and the costs of generating power and energy through more traditional means. Communities looking to put in a waste-to-energy facility can take advantage of various means of financing, and can also expect further financial benefits such as reduced landfill fees and transportation costs, as well as more jobs and a boost to the local economy through facility building and operation.


MYTH: Landfilling is a cheaper and better option than waste-to-energy.

landfillFACT: Although landfilling might initially seem like an inexpensive waste management option when compared with waste-to-energy, there are numerous additional costs that must be taken into account. For communities that are not located close to a landfill, the cost of transporting waste perhaps hundreds of miles can be considerable, as can the cost of using a transfer station to get waste to its final destination. In addition, many of America’s landfills are currently at or above capacity, and the costs of properly siting, building, and operating a brand new landfill can be significant, particularly in densely populated areas where land is at a premium. Finally, landfilling also involves numerous environmental costs that waste-to-energy does not share to the same extent, including significant greenhouse gas emissions and the possibility for landfill leachate to contaminate nearby soil and water.


MYTH: Waste-to-energy facilities smell.

FACT: On the contrary, landfills smell, but waste-to-energy facilities do not. That is, the inside of a waste-to-energy facility smells, but those odors are not transmitted outside the facility and do not impact the air quality for neighboring residents. This is because the design of modern waste-to-energy facilities leverages constant negative air pressure to continually draw air from the refuse pit containing incoming waste to the furnace, where the waste is eventually combusted. This system effectively eliminates the risk that any smell or odor of garbage will be detected outside the facility.


MYTH: Waste ash is hazardous.

FACT: A byproduct of the incineration process, waste ash has been passing stringent toxicity tests for many years now, and the EPA has determined that it is safe enough for disposal in landfills. In addition, waste ash can actually be useful as well as safe; when waste ash is landfilled, it can compact and harden, thus helping prevent the leaching of contaminants from the landfill into the ground. Waste ash can even be used in some states as an aggregate in road bed materials, thus reducing the need for virgin resources.

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