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| be Waste Wise | September 21, 2023

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Waste-to-Energy in the Waste Management Hierarchy

Waste-to-Energy in the Waste Management Hierarchy

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




Where does waste-to-energy fit in the waste management hierarchy (if at all)?
Is it a technology that belongs in a city’s municipal solid waste management portfolio, and if so, what role should it play?


 I certainly do think that waste-to-energy is a strategy that most cities can use. And, it is a strategy that many cities are using and continue to look at. It is a strategy that from the standpoint of United States has most clearly taken areas that are much more dense in population, and have issues with landfilling, and are looking at a situation where they do not have to transport the waste over vast distances.

Waste-to-energy is also a technology that has been evolving over the years and there are many new developments in this technology, moving in mainly one direction – to be able to applied to smaller size waste streams. Not only is it a strategy that has real importance for the current public policy, it is a strategy that will definitely present itself to additional areas.




 Well I think waste-to-energy fits in the waste management hierarchy, obviously! It fits below below recycling and composting and above landfilling as a preferred means of recapturing some of the waste that we are disposing.

The opposition that I often hear to place it in urban areas is based on a lot of older thinking from before the MACT Standards (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) went into place. People are concerned that it maybe causing air pollution or leading to health problems, and that really is no longer the case. The data doesn’t support that.

So, as a solution, then the next question is: does it contribute to climate change? That’s really where I began to get into the conversation on waste-to-energy. And, the majority, more than 50% of waste that is burnt in waste-to-energy facilities is already part of the short carbon cycle. In which case, it has an organic derivative and it doesn’t add to climate change, to begin with. The long form carbon that is burned, things like plastics that have come out of the ground in the form of oil do add to climate change. But, they have already been used once. They have already been extracted once and what we are doing is taking the energy out of them after that physical use, capturing some of that (energy), thereby offsetting more carbon from natural gas or oil or coal. So, the net effect is a reduction in carbon emissions.


 I would say that we have to be careful with reducing our thinking to just plain hierarchy. It should be obvious that waste management is an issue of culture, referring to how efficiently we are preventing waste and and reusing. I will give you the example of water – here you see the picture (of a ceramic jug), I don’t need plastic bottles for it. And our tap water is of high quality and we use nice glasses, and not plastic cups.

Waste-to-energy and recycling are complementary depending on the results of analyses of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, which are absolutely valid. One can decide in specific situations whether waste-to-energy or whether some type of recycling technology would be more appropriate. It is not an either/or option.

In our experience, municipal waste management is an End. I some times compare it with having two strong legs in order to walk or to run. One leg is recycling, the other leg is waste-to-energy. But, above all, consider how much waste we produce? And the worst thing we can experience or what we are observing now-a-days is pollution of oceans with garbage, and incredible landfills.

In Austria, it was possible – and I was actively involved in it – to have an absolute ban on landfilling wastes exceeding 5% organic carbon. This is written in law since 1996. There were some exceptions for some period of time, but landfills of organic wastes are just banned, not just in Austria but also in other cultures similar to Austria – like Switzerland and Germany.


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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