Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Myths About Recycling and WTE: Why Towns Shouldn’t Fear WTE Will Hurt Recycling

As more communities consider waste-to-energy projects as an alternative to landfilling, we at the Better BTU have noticed a pattern. Frequently, early on in the process, a local news outlet reports council members fearing that the proposed project will hurt local recycling efforts. Usually these council members are later educated as to how recycling and waste-to-energy plants work together, but since it seems to be a recurring theme, we’d like to devote some time to clearing up the myths about recycling and waste-to-energy facilities, particularly those using some form of gasification.

Myth: Residents will lose enthusiasm for recycling if we have a WTE facility.

This was a reported concern of Councilmember Diane Holmes of Ottawa, who felt the facility would send the wrong message to residents since it converts trash to a syngas that can be used to produce electricity and/or heat. She said she feared recycling would seem “redundant”.

Recycling is close to the top of the environmental hierarchy of solid waste management. Experts across the spectrum agree that recycling is the best form of waste management since it takes less energy to manufacture something from recycled material than virgin materials. For example, it takes 95% less energy to make a can from 41% recycled aluminum than it does to create one from virgin bauxite ore.  Educating the public on the importance of recycling, regardless of where the rest of the trash goes, should be a goal of all communities. 

Myth: Our city/county/state already does a good job recycling so there is no need for a WTE facility.

While the amount of recycled materials has grown steadily since 1990, the U.S. recycling rate remains consistent at 27-33% of waste. The EPA reports 55% of all trash still winds up in a landfill and David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management, estimates close to $20 billion in valuable resources get buried in landfills every year.

Individual communities have set impressive goals and made great progress in diverting trash from landfills. We chronicled San Jose’s efforts to achieve zero landfill status (San Jose Sets the Emerald Standard for Green Cities) and the city reports that it is currently diverting 71% of its trash away from landfills. As a whole, the state of California diverts 58% of its trash from landfills, while Minnesota has reach 40% and South Carolina sits at a 28% diversion rate. Unfortunately, for every San Jose, there are dozens of major metropolitan areas reporting single-digit diversion rates and 11 states still fall below 10% in recycling.

A waste-to-energy facility is able to take material that normally would sit in a landfill and convert it to a renewable gas. Several large landfills are slated to reach capacity in the next 20 years and a WTE facility can prolong the life while also creating a renewable energy source.

Myth: Waste-to-Energy companies don’t care about recycling.

Too many people conjure up images of the old mass incinerators that ate everything in its path and emitted clouds of black smoke into the sky. Today’s developers are interested in sorting the recyclables from the trash for the same reason large companies are – it’s a moneymaker. Commodity prices are too high to let recyclables stay in the waste stream. Unlike larger incinerators and gasifiers (think Covanta or Thermoselect), the majority of gasifiers coming to market need to have the trash shredded in order to process it. Since developers are already having to invest in front-end processing, they might as well pull out the recyclables while they are at it.
Workers pick out the recyclables in San Jose, Calif.
(Courtesy: KGO-TV San Francisco.)

There are several studies that suggest that recycling rates might actually increase in cities with waste-to-energy facilities since the plant will catch materials that might have otherwise ended up in the landfill.

Myth: WTE facilities will end up having to process recyclables because of the large volume needed to keep the plant operational.

As mentioned above, today’s gasifiers are not the large mass incinerators of old. Advancements in technology have made smaller facilities more economical and the trend is to have a larger number of smaller plants rather than one large facility that handles an entire region’s trash.

Smaller facilities help the environment in several ways. First, it reduces the amount of trucking needed for the trash, saving money and reducing greenhouse gases. Secondly, smaller plants don’t require the same high volumes of trash to keep it economical and operational.  Additionally, companies take into account a certain amount of recyclables being pulled when calculating how much trash a town can provide.

Better BTU Take: Waste-to-energy and recycling are a match. Although the almighty buck does have a lot of say, at the end of the day many developers in the business have more progressive views than traditional waste companies. They recognize the value of recycling and don’t want to see it compromised by their technology. If larger, traditionally conservative companies like Covanta and Waste Management have come around on recycling, you can bet the little guys support it as well.

Recommended Reading:
Councillor Fears Plasco Will Curb Recycling – By Jon Willing, Ottawa Sun (Dec. 15, 2011). 


  1. These council members are later educated as to how recycling san diego and waste-to-energy plants work together. thanks..........

  2. The energy efficiency of recycling ("sorting at source") is close to zero, so as such, recycling cannot be rightfully at the top of the environmental hierarchy.
    The waste sorting at mechanised, efficient facilities is close to the top, the top being occupied by reusing.
    At one point, the society had to be lied to that recycling is good, to have the people to pay attention to the environmental issues, represented by municipal waste.
    If sorting at source were so great, we'd do it with sewage, too.