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| be Waste Wise | December 3, 2022

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Why are Recycling Rates Higher in Communities with Waste-to-Energy?

Why are Recycling Rates Higher in Communities with Waste-to-Energy?

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




Do different policies or the very existence of greater waste-to-energy in communities result in higher recycling rates in those regions?

I think that the the major reason why you see these differences in terms of recycling rates in these areas which have waste-to-energy compared to those that don’t is basically the state and local policy environment. To just make the decision to move to waste-to-energy facility there has to be a lot of studies of feasibility, including understanding the waste stream, thinking through what the different streams of waste you have. How can you best maximize those streams? The kind of planning that goes into this type of a facility really engages the whole gamut of the waste management stream. So, those localities, and solid waste districts that have sited or are looking at moving to waste-to-energy as one part of their waste disposal strategy are also engaged in – sort of – an integrated waste policy initiative.

There are various examples for the above trend in the United States, Florida being one. Some of the facilities in Florida have the most advanced recycling programs, as well as energy recovery at landfill, as well as landfill solar, using landfill cover sheets. They have solar panels on them to actually generate power additionally from their landfill. Not only siting waste-to-energy facilities, but in one case in Palm Beach County is actually building a second waste-to-energy facility in the midst of a wide range of initiatives where every waste stream will be managed properly.

Another good example, and a very interesting one to me, is Minnesota, where one of our panelists Shawn Otto comes from. Minnesota is an interesting state. It is in the mid-west. It has access to low cost landfill, but in the state itself, especially within certain areas, the landfills themselves are very problematic, given the geological formations of the rock. So, there has been a real effort in certain areas to nearly move to a landfill ban, or to lower the amount of landfilling to about 10% of the waste generated. In those areas, waste-to-energy plus recycling has become the major strategy. And again, some of these plants are not the large plants that we might associate with waste-to-energy on the East Coast or maybe even in Florida, but these are mid-size to smaller plants that are actually being built in conjunction with a very strong state-wide recycling policy.

So, in places where you see high recycling rates, most of the local and state-wise policies really help in conjunction with waste-to-energy.


 I think that is very true. Although there is a growing concern among local politicians about the cost of waste-to-energy and its environmental effects. There are lot of counter arguments being brought forward about whether or waste-to-energy should continue. Most of those are based on old data again. But, the issue that is most commonly brought up is the economic one of the increased cost and how much cheaper it is – in a market sense – to take waste to a landfill in a neighboring state.








Is that true? Does the increased cost argument bear out if you extend it to the life cycle of the waste-to-energy plant?

 No, it doesn’t and its really predicated on the idea of externalizing all of the costs of the decomposition of that waste, by just dumping it in the ground and really not taking that much further responsibility for it, other than eventually covering it up and harvesting some of the methane. But, a great deal of the methane and a great deal of the green house gases that are produced by the landfills, as you know, happen in the first decade when the landfill is open. So, I think it is based on some false economics that we really need to address in our policy system.








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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