Why Waste-to-Energy is Important for Business Leaders to Understand
Even now in 2021, the majority of the general waste produced in North America is sent to landfill sites. This waste typically consists of a high proportion of organic material, for example food, paper, cardboard, wood and green waste.
What makes landfills bad for the environment?
Landfill sites aren’t just an eye sore of growing piles of waste, they can also be a major source of pollution, and are associated with several environmental issues. Rubbish buried in landfill breaks down at a very slow rate and remains a problem for future generations, with landfill sites requiring expert management well after they have reached their capacity and their useful life is over.
Landfill sites emit by-products like dioxins and leachate (a toxic liquid that is formed when waste breaks down in the landfill and filters through waste), which, when left untreated, can leach into the soil, contaminating water sources, plants and even food. When organic waste decomposes anaerobically, as it does in landfill sites, it also produces methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Landfills also come with some secondary side effects such as nauseous odors and pest infestations, which create their own waste problems.
What is the Alternative to Landfills?
Waste-to-Energy (WtE) is an alternative treatment methodology which is slowly growing in prominence in the U.S. The WtE sector now handles 14% of all MSW and there are 86 WtE facilities spanning 25 states, processing over 29 million tons of waste per year.
WtE technology is a broad term for an energy recovery process that converts chemicals from waste residues into practical forms of energy like electricity, heat or steam. As of now, thermal conversion techniques lead the market among WtE technologies.
What Technologies are Covered by the Term “WtE”?
WtE isn’t just incineration, although that currently represents the greatest proportion of the facilities in the U.S.
The table below breaks down all of the WtE technologies that exist, from direct combustion (incineration), through to anaerobic digestion of organic waste.
In the case of anaerobic digestion of food waste, the process not only generates a gaseous fuel (methane) that can be combusted to generate energy, but it also creates a beneficial by-product of high-quality liquid organic fertilizer that can be used for agricultural soil enhancement.
The Growing Case for Waste to Energy
Despite the large construction costs for WtE plants, officials at both a state and federal level are becoming increasingly keen to incorporate them into their strategic waste management plans.
Governments are becoming increasingly constrained to find suitable space for waste management sites, and WtE plants occupy less than 10% of the land required for a landfill, without any of the concerns regarding leachates and dioxins. Many municipalities are also starting to exert pressure to block planning applications for new landfill sites, due to their concerns about their long-term environmental impacts.
As well as space-constrained or preferred land use, government officials also have to consider how to fulfill supply to meet the projected increase in energy demand, minimize concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, safeguard fuel availability and prevent potential disruptions to the supply chain. As WtE facilities are more than just waste disposal sites but are also producers of renewable energy, they provide solutions to several of these concerns.
One advantage of using MSW as a fuel source is its sheer volume. More than 220 million tons of MSW are generated each year in the U.S and landfill sites are filling up while waste disposal costs are steadily increasing.
Most WtE facilities process between 500 and 3,000 tons of waste per day. In total, this produces enough electricity to power about 2.8 million homes. Furthermore, it’s compatible with recycling and helps to promote resource minimization.
Modern WtE facilities have to meet some of the world’s most stringent environmental standards, operating in compliance with new Clean Air Act pollution control standards. These facilities produce two-thirds less CO2 compared to traditional coal-fired power plants. The EPA estimates that WtE facilities prevent 36 million tons of CO2 per year from being emitted.
The WtE sector also encompasses biofuel, which has seen a massive increase in popularity, particularly from the aviation industry, with United Airlines investing $30 million in the largest producer of aviation biofuel.
How Businesses Can Benefit by Utilizing WtE
Considering the environmental benefits detailed above, together with the beneficial by-products that many of the technologies create, ranging from vegetable proteins to fertilizer, businesses will reduce their environmental impact by sending their waste to a WtE plant rather than to landfill.
If your business currently measures its carbon footprint, has sustainability targets, completes ESG reporting, or just wants to make its operations less environmentally impactful, then diverting as much waste as possible from landfill is an important step to make. Switching the destination of your waste to a WtE facility rather than a landfill site requires no alteration to an organization’s waste operations, and as such can make an instantaneous impact while other resource minimization strategies are being worked on.
Utilizing WtE alongside a conventional recycling program can enable businesses to achieve zero-to-landfill status, which makes for a valuable marketing tool both for securing high caliber new recruits, and for winning new contracts.
As landfill charges continue to increase and WtE technologies become more cost effective, it might even offer your business long-term cost saving opportunities, depending on the composition of your waste stream and other factors.
NWA Sources the Best Treatment Technologies for Your Waste
National Waste Associates (NWA) uses its vast hauler network to identify and utilize the most cost-effective and environmentally beneficial treatment methodology for your waste, for each location in your portfolio.
Where WtE plants are available, we will identify the haulers that are able to send the greatest proportion of your waste to these facilities. NWA has no affiliations with landfill sites, unlike the national haulers who also own landfill facilities. Instead, our model is to work with haulers who are truly independent and agnostic to which disposal sites they utilize. This is a key differentiator that enables our customers to capitalize on opportunities like WtE.
WtE is only one piece of the puzzle to reduce the environmental impact of your waste operations. That’s why NWA also constantly analyses the composition of your waste stream to identify opportunities to reduce, reuse and recycle more materials, diverting them from the waste stream entirely.
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