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| be Waste Wise | December 3, 2022

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Correlation Between Recycling Rates and Waste-to-Energy

Correlation Between Recycling Rates and Waste-to-Energy

Thanks to the Earth Engineering Center for making this knowledge sharing possible




Can you give us a brief overview of the correlation between recycling rates and waste-to-energy in the United States and Austria?


 I’ve been looking at that data nationally. I know that I committed sort of a ‘cardinal sin’ here because I am using USEPA’s numbers and I know some of the problems with EPA numbers.

But, historically, looking at the percentage of waste disposed via recycling and via waste-to-energy since 1995, in the last 15 years, waste-to-energy as the percentage of waste generated has come down. Starting from 19% in 1995 down to about 12% (USEPA numbers) of the waste now. So, we’ve actually gone backwards in terms of waste-to-energy.

Recycling has gone up somewhat, from about 25% to about 34% from 1995. But that’s not a huge increase either in 15 years! And, what the most depressing thing is you take these two numbers together, the waste that’s converted to energy and waste that’s recovered by recycling, and you see that there’s been no change in the last 15 years. We’re still landfilling about 54-55% of waste. So, in the past 15 years, it is quite amazing to see that there’s been not so much progress in the United States to the extent that we’ve been able to move towards more sustainable management of our waste.

As many of you know, a waste-to-energy facility is still really taking materials that have been discarded and trying to find best use in terms of energy recovered. But, in addition, even with all the attention that’s been paid to recycling, it is quite remarkable in the United States, how much metal – good metal like aluminum, ferrous, non-ferrous, copper, etc. – is being pulled out of the post combustion waste stream of a conventional waste-to-energy facility. There is a lot of work we still have to do. Recycling and Waste-to-Energy are not incompatible strategies, whatsoever.


 Well, I would say that recycling has its place and the efficiency in recycling has been increasing throughout because of better technologies. But, we have also increased waste-to-energy and completely banned the disposal of untreated wastes in landfills. In this graph, you can see an exponential growth in the total amount of residual waste after deducting recycling materials. Source-separation and recycling reduced it, but now it is slowly increasing because of increasing populations and smaller households. You see that green color is waste-to-energy and you can observe that waste-to-energy is still increasing. You can also see mechanical biological treatment decreasing for good reasons.

There was some landfilling of untreated wastes, but since 2008, the last exceptions have been legally banned in Austria. So, this has been a development of course, where we have a lot of know-how and experience and we’re very happy with using waste-to-energy as a sustainable method.

I would like to mention one expression we use in Austria. It is called “precycling”, meaning, rather than just using oil and natural gas for energy, we first look to make products like plastic polymer products. Then, you may recycle the plastic polymers to some extent, where it is reasonable and then, you use the plastic wastes eventually for waste-to-energy. So, we have a much better use and recycling is combined or seem complementary to waste-to-energy.


 In my research for some recent articles about this, I’ve noticed that it is true what Eileen had said that communities in the United States that have waste-to-energy plants tend to recycle 5% more of their waste than communities that don’t. It is also true in Europe, where that correlation exists to a very high degree. So, the argument that they are not compatible just doesn’t seem to be borne out by the evidence.








Article and Comments Section: Waste-to-energy technology is cleaner and safer than generally believed – Shawn Otto (On Minnesota Post) (Comments Section on Ensia)

Report: Recycling and Waste-to-Energy: Are They Compatible? – Eileen Berenyi (Link to PDF)

White Book: Waste-to-Energy in Austria, Figures, Data and Facts – Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (Link to PDF)


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