Pandemic garbage boom ignites debate over waste as energy
Waste-to-energy plants are expanding in other parts of the world, as more than 120 plants have been built in the last five years.
Technology / IIoT
America remains awash in refuse as new cases of the coronavirus decline — and that has reignited a debate about the sustainability of burning more trash to create energy.
Waste-to-energy plants, which produce most of their power by incinerating trash, make up only about half a percent of the electricity generation in the U.S. But the plants have long aroused considerable opposition from environmentalists and local residents who decry the facilities as polluters, eyesores and generators of foul odor.
The industry has been in retreat mode in the U.S., with dozens of plants closing since 2000 amid local opposition and emissions concerns. But members of the industry said they see the increase in garbage production in the U.S. in recent months as a chance to play a bigger role in creating energy and fighting climate change by keeping waste out of methane-creating landfills.
One estimate from the Solid Waste Association of North America placed the amount of residential waste up as much as 8% this spring compared to the previous spring. And more trash is on the way. A 2020 study in the journal Science stated that the global plastic packaging market size was projected to grow from more than $900 billion in 2019 to more than $1 trillion by 2021, growth largely due to the pandemic response.
That trash has to go somewhere, and using it as a resource makes more sense than sending it to landfills, said James Regan, senior director of corporate communications for Covanta, the largest player in the industry. The company currently processes about 20 million tons (18,144 metric tons) of waste a year to power about a million homes, and it could do more, he said.
“If we’re going to reach climate goals by 2050, the waste sector really can and should be part of that story,” Regan said. “This is low-hanging fruit. So what are we waiting for?”
Waste-to-energy plants are expanding in other parts of the world, as more than 120 plants have been built in the last five years. They’re concentrated most heavily in Europe and Asia. But the most recent new plant in the U.S. opened in 2015 in Palm Beach County, Florida.
President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has put a premium on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and creation of more renewable energy, and while that push has focused heavily on wind and solar power, the administration has also acknowledged a place for waste-to-energy conversion. The White House said in an April statement that the U.S. “can address carbon pollution from industrial processes” by including waste-to-power in the mix.