Is Waste-to-Energy the Future of Waste Management?

A recently released report by Pike Research shows that more than 260 million tons of waste per year will be converted to energy by 2022.  That sounds like a good thing until you realize that by 2025, the world’s population is projected to generate over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste. So while a first read of the Pike Research report is encouraging, even under the “optimistic” scenario where 396 million tons per year are used to produce power, that means that globally we will still have a lot of trash to manage (waste-to-energy accounting for under 20% of the volume generated). Unfortunately in the U.S., where landfill costs are low and recycling rates are under 35%, we still view waste as a waste. We need an waste management policy as much as we need an energy policy. Actually, the two could work in harmony as part of an overall policy that utilizes our abundant domestic energy resources (including waste), supports research and technology development, protects against environmental damage, and provides much-needed economic benefits.

The barrier? While its easy to blame politics, as a people we are as polarized as our elected leaders. We want to clean up the world but don’t consider that some policies place the economic burden primarily on those of disadvantaged economic status. We want to have low energy prices but don’t consider the life-cycle costs of energy sources (from extraction to use to disposal of byproducts). We protest the development of new energy sources in our community (whether it be coal, natural gas, wind, solar, waste, or others) because of environmental, noise, or even visual concerns but continue to be consumers of energy and wasters of resources without proposing alternative solutions. Of course the “we” I refer to are different groups of people with different demographics depending on the issue. Until “we” are willing to compromise, our wasteful ways will continue.

Want to learn more? Read Dawn Santoianni’s commentary at Scientific American’s Plugged In Blog.

One thought on “Is Waste-to-Energy the Future of Waste Management?

  1. Pike Research is a very good sourcebook on the subject. While the numbers vary from other sources the impact shall be same as predicted by others. The figures are often inaccurate, incomplete and inconsistent due to methodologies and approaches besides their availability and accessability. However to tackle the formidable problem of MSW particularly in south east asian region, a multi-pronged strategy is essential. It must include (a) frequent collection by local government and transport to disposal point (b) ban on open burning of waste and use as fuel. In Delhi, capital of India, the state government supplies gas stoves and LPG gas to poor people free of cost or at nominal cost to overcome this menace which is highly successful (c) waste to energy plants for every cluster.