Energy-from-Waste Facilities vs Incinerators – Debunking the Myths

Decades ago, garbage incinerators were used to do one thing: reduce the volume of waste requiring disposal. Today’s modern Energy-from-Waste facilities are not your Grandfather's incinerator - they are designed to recover the value in the waste that remains after recycling by recovering energy and recyclables such as ferrous metals (i.e. steel) and non-ferrous metals (i.e. aluminum). Another important distinction between EfW and incinerators is that EfW does this with some of most sophisticated air pollution control equipment available today. 

Incineration is an uncontrolled combustion process without energy recovery. Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities that recover energy from municipal solid waste (MSW) in specially designed boilers to ensure complete combustion and the recovery of energy. The energy recovery – in the form of steam and electricity – is then used for the communities in which the facilities operate. EfW facilities also employ state-of-the-art pollution control equipment to scrub and filter emissions, preventing their release into our environment. The result is clean, renewable energy

Around the world, hundreds of EfW plants supply reliable, base load renewable energy to power communities and divert waste from landfills, preventing methane emissions (a greenhouse gas over 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide) from decomposing garbage.

EfW Produces Renewable Energy

The International Energy Agency defines renewable energy as energy “derived from natural processes that are replenished constantly.” Solar, wind, wave, hydropower, biomass and geothermal energy are typically considered renewable. We consider EfW-generated energy to be renewable because the fuel (waste) is consistently replenished and all of the energy recovered preserves natural resources and avoids secondary impacts from mining and the combustion of those resources.

Ash: A Non-Hazardous Leftover from EfW Process

The EfW process produces an ash by product: the bottom ash that remains after the combustion process and the residue that remains from emissions control systems. In the U.S. these ash streams are combined and disposed of or reused as non-hazardous waste. Approximately one-third of the combined ash in the U.S. is approved for use as daily cover at landfills, instead of soil, to reduce leachate (liquid that drains off decomposing waste at landfills) and run-off. The rest is sent for co-landfilling with MSW or to a monofill where only ash is stored. However, in Europe and other countries, bottom ash is reused in civil projects such as road construction and fabrication of blocks. We are working with experts, authorities and others in the industry to promote the use of ash as viable and valuable construction aggregate material in the U.S. 

EfW Facilities Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

While incinerators were known as polluters and dangerous to the environment, EfW plants are a net benefit for the climate and are reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly one ton of greenhouse gas emissions are avoided for every ton of municipal solid waste processed at an EfW facility. 

Slow Acceptance of EfW Plants 

Both the U.S. and Canada currently lack the policy and regulatory framework necessary to encourage investment in recycling and EfW. However, we’re encouraged by the worldwide attention to energy and climate change which is forcing the nations to rethink how to manage resources in a sustainable manner.