Waste-to-energy is a sustainable alternative to simply letting trash sit in a landfill and can be cost-effective for manufacturers.

The current world economy is just 9.1% circular. Across the globe, though, many thought leaders are proposing a circular economy to reduce waste and mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. A vital component of a circular economy — and efforts to fight global warming — is waste-to-energy initiatives.

Instead of allowing waste to accumulate in landfills, waste-to-energy (WtE) initiatives transform that waste into something more valuable.

Waste-to-energy: The sustainable alternative to landfills
WtE involves generating energy (such as heat and electricity) from waste. Waste-to-energy is a sustainable alternative to simply letting trash sit in a landfill. Landfills present various health, safety, and environmental problems, including the following:

A- Toxins
Many items in landfills contain toxic substances. For example, electronic waste (televisions, cell phones, etc.) contains harmful substances like mercury, arsenic, acids, cadmium, and lead. When electronic waste sits in a landfill, these toxins eventually seep into the soil and groundwater.

B- Leachate
When waste breaks down in landfills and water filters through it, a liquid called leachate is formed. Leachate is highly toxic and pollutes the land, groundwater, and waterways.

C- Greenhouse Gases
When organic matter (food waste, green waste, and other compostable materials) sits in a landfill, it’s usually compacted and covered. This process removes oxygen and breaks down the material, eventually releasing methane.
Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and highly flammable. It has a worse greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, too.

How it works
Several processes fall under the waste-to-energy umbrella. The following are some of the most well-known options:

A- Incineration
The waste-to-energy process is most commonly carried out via combustion with the help of waste incinerators.
Waste gets burned, which boils water. The boiling water then turns into steam, which spins the turbines required to create electricity.
The heat from the combustion process is also viable.

B- Gasification
Gasification involves processing biomass at extremely high temperatures without combustion. This process results in combustible natural gas — or syngas — that can be used as a fuel source.

C- Fermentation and Distillation
Biomass can also be fermented and distilled, producing ethanol. Ethanol is an alternative fuel for engines or other applications.

D- Anaerobic Digestion
During anaerobic digestion, microorganisms break down biomass in an oxygen-free environment. This process produces biogas that is high in methane. Biogas can serve as a fuel source for electricity and other applications.

The benefits of WTE
There are many benefits of using waste-to-energy as an alternative to landfills. The following are some of the most significant advantages that waste-to-energy initiatives offer:

1- Reduce Landfill Waste
One of the top reasons for waste-to-energy initiatives is that they reduce landfill waste. Much of what ends up in landfills each year (up to 80%, according to some estimates) could be reused or recycled in some way. WtE plans save that material from sitting in a landfill, releasing toxic substances into the water, soil, and air.

2- Limitless Energy Creation
Properly planned and implemented waste-to-energy initiatives can generate massive amounts of energy, which can then be used to produce heat and electricity. There is no way to completely eliminate waste products in the world. However, waste-to-energy initiatives give that waste a second life and use it to create other things that people need for survival.

3- Sustainable Process
The actual waste-to-energy process is also environmentally sound. No fossil fuels or non-renewable sources are required to facilitate these processes. Waste-to-energy plants can also fuel themselves. In addition to creating energy, they also prevent greenhouse gas release. According to TRVST, the power generated from waste-to-energy plants can prevent the use of 200,000 barrels of oil each year, too.

4- Financially Sound
The cost of waste-to-energy initiatives varies based on several factors, including the specific technology used. However, WtE can also save money by eliminating the cost of transporting waste to landfills. Energy generated through WtE can also be sold to generate a profit.

5- Job Creation
Many people have concerns about jobs lost as governments continue pushing to reduce waste. It’s important to note, though, that eco-friendly initiatives like waste-to-energy can also create more job opportunities. As waste-to-energy initiatives become more popular worldwide, the demand for professionals who can facilitate them will grow as well.

Four factors to consider when creating a waste-to-energy plan
Those who want to experience the benefits of waste-to-energy initiatives must also consider the potential challenges. Taking these factors into account will help them to create more effective and sustainable waste-to-energy plans:

1- CO2 Emission
A common critique of waste-to-energy is that nearly all the carbon content in the burned waste is emitted as carbon dioxide. This issue is particularly problematic when it comes to burning oil-based products like plastics. It also explains the importance of continuing to recycle such materials to minimize carbon dioxide emissions.

2- Saving Recoverable Materials
Some people are also critical of waste-to-energy because, when it’s not carried out thoughtfully, it can result in the incineration of recoverable materials like plastic, minerals, and wood. Stringent separation processes help to prevent this from happening.

3- Recycling Incentives
Another potential downside to waste-to-energy initiatives is that they can incentivize recycling. Some may assume that if waste can just be burned, there’s no point in reducing, reusing, and recycling — other critical elements of a circular economy. When launching waste-to-energy initiatives, it’s important to emphasize the importance of continuing to recycle when possible rather than treating WtE as an all-encompassing solution.

4- Ash Disposal
The ash produced from the incineration process contains numerous harmful chemicals, including heavy metals. Ash must be appropriately disposed of to avoid exposure-related health effects, such as respiratory problems and reproductive difficulties.

Waste-to-energy initiatives are valuable alternatives to traditional waste management — i.e., sending everything to a landfill, which contributes to soil and water pollution and greenhouse gas production. The idea of launching a waste-to-energy initiative may seem daunting at first. By keeping these factors in mind, though, you can implement an effective, sustainable, and environmentally friendly approach.

Nicolle Portilla – Plantengineering.com
Author Bio: Nicolle is Zero Waste’s Social Media Manager, and has been a valued member of the team since July 2018. She is responsible for content creation on all platforms, leveraging creative software, industry trends and research, and social media strategy to build upon the company’s online presence.