Disposing of waste in landfills is the most commonly used management technique in the United States, accounting for 69 percent of total garbage disposal. Some local governments, however, have begun to send their trash to EfW facilities, totaling 7 percent of total waste disposal. Instead of transporting trash to the landfill, garbage trucks deliver the waste to an EfW facility, and in some cases the trash is even loaded onto railcars for delivery, which eliminates both truck traffic and diesel pollution.
Once the trash has been delivered to the EfW facility, it is dropped into a pit where a grapple will transfer the trash to a combustion chamber. Inside the combustion chamber, the trash is burned, causing water to boil, which will lead to the creation of steam. The steam then spins turbines to generate electricity. Throughout this process, filters are trapping fly ash, particulate matter, and metals from the trash that are not burned and are collected for recycling or even to be used in projects such as road construction and landfill-cover material. Gases from the burned waste are collected, filtered, and cleaned before being emitted. The remaining quantities of residue are collected through the filters, stored, and then sent to landfills for disposal. The electricity generated as a result of the spinning turbines goes to a switchyard and then gets transferred onto the grid for utilization and purchase.
A typical EfW plant is able to generate about 550 kilowatt-hours per ton of waste while complying with all state and federal standards. This process has led many to recognize EfW facilities as a form of renewable-energy technology. In fact, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which authorized loan guarantees, tax credits, and energy bonds for technologies that avoid greenhouse-gas pollution, included it as a renewable-energy resource.
Under the Clean Air Act, EfW facilities must use the most modern air-pollution-control equipment available to ensure the smokestack emissions—carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, soot, and mercury—are safe for human health and the environment. All facilities are specifically subject to regulations under the EPA’s Maximum Achievable Control Technology Standards, which created emissions standards for industrial and commercial industries. Because of the high temperatures inside the combustion chambers, most pollutants do not escape through the smokestacks, but scrubbing devices are installed in all EfW facilities as another control system to limit dangerous emissions.
EfW plants do involve large upfront expenditures, which can be a hurdle when building a new facility. A new EfW plant typically requires at least $100 million to finance construction costs, and this could be doubled or tripled depending on the size of the plant. In order to finance the plant, facilities will require municipal revenue bonds, which are issued by local governments or agencies to secure revenue for essential service-infrastructure projects and are repaid with interest. Long-term contracts, however, are often developed between the facility and the county or city government that secure the facility-waste tipping fee, or the price charged for the trash received at a processing facility that is then used to pay back bonds and operating costs. Contracts are also established with utilities to receive income from the electricity generated and sold to the grid. This money is then used to pay back the bonds with interest.
Furthermore, hauling trash to landfills is expensive for large cities in America. New York City, for example, paid more than $300 million last year just to transport trash to out-of-state landfills. In these cases, EfW facilities could be immediately beneficial by saving governments money while generating jobs and local revenue from an EfW facility. In other regions of the United States, however, it can be cheaper to send trash to landfills when looking at a short-term economic analysis due to the amount of land available for trash disposal. Arkansas has an average landfill tipping fee of $35 per ton of garbage and has a reserve capacity of more than 600 years. This is less than the U.S. average tipping fee of $45 per ton and also is below the average tipping fee at an EfW facility of $68 per ton. But on a long-term economic basis, EfW facilities cost less than disposing of waste in landfills due to returns from the electricity sold and even the sale of recovered metals. Indeed, Jeremy K. O’Brien, director of applied research for the solid-waste- management advocacy organization Solid Waste Association of North America, writes that, “Over the life of the [EfW] facility, which is now confidently projected to be in the range of 40 to 50 years, a community can expect to pay significantly less for MSW disposal at a [EfW] facility than at a regional MSW landfill.”
National and state recommendations
The most sustainable and cost-effective approach to limiting the amount of trash sent to landfills is avoiding waste generation entirely. Since that is hardly likely to happen at any point in the near future, however, the United States should create strong policies to increase recycling and composting efforts and implement policies to increase the amount of trash sent to EfW facilities.
The United States currently has 86 EfW plants operating in 24 states processing more than 97,000 tons of waste per day. The New England region—Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York—alone has 37 operating plants. Connecticut has the highest percentage of its waste going to EfW plants of any state—about 70 percent of its nonrecyclable trash—and nearly 25 percent of its waste is recycled. According to Eileen Berenyi of the research and consulting firm Governmental Advisory Associates, EfW in Connecticut contributes $428 million annually to the state’s revenue and has created nearly 1,000 jobs.
Despite the economic benefits of EfW facilities, the United States as a whole is not taking advantage of EfW technology, especially when compared to Europe. Countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, and Sweden have proved that recycling and EfW management go hand in hand. These five nations have the highest recycling rates in Europe and have reduced their dependence on landfills to 1 percent or below of waste disposal. European nations have been able to achieve these rates because of the EU Landfill Directive, which allows different countries to implement their own programs and policies to drive down the amount of garbage sent to landfills—whether that involves increasing landfill fees or increasing recycling-collection schemes. Nations in Europe also recognize EfW as a renewable energy source and are using this technology to help reach renewable-energy targets.
Because of strong nationwide policies, the EU member states sent 19 percent less trash to landfills in 2011 compared to 2001. This ultimately decreases the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from landfills and helps fight climate change. In order for the United States to begin reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills, increasing recycling rates, and generating renewable energy, a municipal-solid-waste portfolio standard must be enacted by Congress and applied nationwide in order to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions from landfills, and individual states should include EfW in current renewable-energy portfolio standards.
Municipal-solid-waste portfolio standard
The United States should set a municipal-solid-waste portfolio standard that would not only increase our nation’s rates of recycling and composting but would also significantly decrease the amount of garbage destined for landfills. As many European nations have already demonstrated, recycling efforts must be included in any national policy in order to reduce the level of waste in landfills. A few U.S. states have already established MSW strategies; both California and Florida, for example, have enacted a 75 percent recycling, including composting, goal by 2020. Establishing incentives for recycling, such as providing homes and businesses with free recycling containers in conjunction with free pickup for recyclables, and creating a market for recyclable materials is also paramount to achieving those standards. Specifically, an executive order requiring federal government agencies to purchase recycled-content materials will establish a market for these products.
By learning from what some states have successfully implemented, a U.S. nationwide standard should be created that mirrors what the European Union has established. Doing so will protect the environment, conserve energy, and reduce greenhouse gases.
Include EfW generation in state renewable portfolio standards
States’ adoption of renewable-energy standards, which require electric-utility companies to produce a portion of their electricity from renewable resources, has considerably driven clean energy advances in recent years. The 29 states and the District of Columbia that have such standards also include landfill gas as an eligible technology, but only 21 states and the District of Columbia recognize EfW as an eligible technology. Maryland has shown the most leadership in this area by raising EfW from a Tier II to a Tier I technology—the same level that solar and wind energy are on—in the renewable portfolio standard, which will increase the percentage of renewable energy from EfW plants allowed in states’ portfolio standards. Other states should look to Maryland and Connecticut and adopt similar policies or seek to modify existing waste-management policies so as to reduce incentives for and reliance on landfills and complement their renewable portfolio standard goals.
Importantly, states should modify their renewable programs so they are consistent with the solid-waste hierarchy. While the solid-waste hierarchy identifies landfills as the least-preferred method for managing waste, landfills including ones with methane-gas capture are typically placed on equal or higher standing in renewable programs than EfW. This unintended encouragement of the use of landfills undermines efforts to reduce that reliance, as well as state renewable and greenhouse-gas reduction goals. Such significant financial support for landfills inhibits the growth of solid-waste-management methods such as recycling and EfW further up in the hierarchy.
Both energy from waste and recycling and composting efforts are a win-win-win for the United States. EfW generates clean electricity, decreases greenhouse gases that would have been emitted from landfills and fossil-fuel power plants, and pairs well with increased recycling rates in states. Recycling and composting reduces trash that is destined for the landfill that would have emitted greenhouse gases while decomposing, saves energy that would have been used for the production of a virgin material, and decreases the need to mine for raw materials, which will preserve our natural resources. The United States must begin developing national policies to deal with the waste-management problem our country faces every day. Doing so will ultimately reduce emissions that cause climate change.
Matt Kasper is a Special Assistant for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress.