Between left over lunches, trimming the bushes, or unboxing that new gadget, Americans generate approximately 7 pounds of waste every day.1 While we’ve more than tripled our recycling and composting rates over the last 30 years, nearly five pounds of that waste still ends up discarded in landfills.2 Although it only accounts for 2.5% of the total U.S. carbon emissions,3 the 250 million tons of municipal solid waste4(MSW) that is buried at landfills is responsible for over 100 megatons of CO2 equivalent and 18% of highly damaging methane emissions.5 By utilizing more of this waste as an energy source, we could generate additional electricity while diverting waste from landfills, resulting in less demand on natural resources, less landfill carbon emissions and more jobs.6
Waste to energy technologies use municipal solid waste – the trash that gets discarded from restaurants, homes, businesses and schools, but not factories and construction sites or wastewater – to create clean energy.7 According to the latest national data on municipal solid waste management, the U.S. generated 390 million tons in 2011, 63% of which was landfilled.8 This landfilled waste is not only a waste of land, decomposing organic matter also turns into methane, a GHG more than twenty times more damaging than CO2,9which then seeps out of the ground into the atmosphere. Modern, larger landfill facilities capture a portion of the gasses produced, but even when landfill gas capture systems are operating, roughly 35% of the gas produced is released, even when the presence of a landfill gas collection system provides an economic incentive for its recovery.10 Further, only 44% of waste is managed at landfills with energy recovery systems in place, leaving gas just flared, or worse yet, just vented.11
In the U.S., the barriers to waste to energy are often economic. The economics usually favor landfilling, and the reasons are simple: landfilling is heavily subsidized, and from the consumer perspective, it’s free.12 Waste-to-energy is preferable to landfilling and creates energy, but the low cost of burying trash makes the economics of energy recovery a hurdle for many communities that would otherwise choose to utilize the energy in their post-recycled waste.
Only 8% of MSW is directly converted to energy, in contrast to its significant use in Europe and Asia. The lack of a comprehensive federal renewable energy policy, coupled with a patchwork of state renewable policies and federal tax policies have created artificial barriers to the deployment of new waste-to-energy facilities in the US. In recent years, several communities have undertaken project development or expansions, and while several have succeeded, there have been project failures due to low landfill and energy pricing. Although waste-to-energy facilities can generate more baseload renewable energy, landfill gas to energy systems are used more often, despite the drawbacks of landfills. However, waste-to-energy can be a cost effective GHG mitigation tool, with a GHG abatement cost of approximately $9 per ton CO2, comparable to wind energy.
The Administration and Congress can take actions to overcome the economic barriers for clean energy from waste.