Why Waste-to-Energy Is Preferable to Landfilling

The average WTE plant creates 58 jobs. DOUGBERRY, Getty Images

Waste-to-energy (WTE) or energy-from-waste (EFW) involves the creation of light or heat energy from the processing of solid waste (mainly by incineration.) This WTE process addresses the problem of solid waste disposal. The first U.S. waste incinerator was built in 1885, and since the 1990s, waste incineration has been associated with energy capture. While this approach very popular in parts of Europe such as Scandinavia, WTE has not yet been as widely accepted in the U.S.

Current Scenario of Landfilling

The cost of landfilling in most countries is on the increase. Meanwhile, available landfill space continues to shrink. The cost of landfilling in Australia ranges from $42 to $105 per ton. The average cost in different states of the U.S. ranges from $24 to $83 per ton. According to statistics provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the number of landfills in the US has dropped from 7,924 in 1988 to just 1,654 in 2005. Increasingly, landfills are being located further from urban centers, involving considerable transport expense.

Benefits of Waste-To-Energy

Here are some of the benefits of WTE compared to landfilling:

  • Economically Preferable: The cost of WTE depends on the technology as well as location and other factors. The benefits result from avoiding the cost of garbage transportation and landfilling, while at the same time generating energy that has monetary value. We can save the significant cost of trucking waste to landfills as most major landfills are fairly distant from main city centers. 
  • Conserves Natural Resources: WTE avoids the consumption of natural resources like oil, gas, and coal which are otherwise used to generate energy. For example, a single WTE facility (Huntsville Waste to Energy facility) saves over 200,000 barrels of oil per year. 
  • Better Recovery of Materials: In WTE, metals left in the waste stream can be extracted from the residue resulting from combustion and the output can be recycled.
  • Less Impact on Climate: WTE has a number of environmental benefits. WTE produces less greenhouse gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas which is mainly emitted from the decomposition of the waste stream in landfills. It is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is one of the most notable contributors to climate change. In WTE facilities, the production of methane is avoided. Currently, WTE facilities in the U.S. account for around 20% of renewable electricity generation. 
  • Creates Jobs: The Energy Recovery Council states that an average WTE facility in the U.S. creates 58 full-time jobs with at least 40 years of projected operation life. As such, the benefits of WTE demonstrate how WTE can solve our waste disposal problems and at the same time supply a renewable source of energy.

Arguments Against WTE

Waste-to-energy offers many benefits to communities. There are some concerns, however, with respect to how WTE impacts the recycling recovery rate or if there is pollution created by WTE. To find out more, read Key Arguments Against Waste to Energy.