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Is The Waste-to-Energy Model Really Eco-Friendly?

Anand Srinivasan's picture
Marketing Consultant Hubbion

Anand Srinivasan is the founder of Hubbion, a suite of free business apps and services. Also, he is a regular contributor to and writes on Internet Media Statistics at...

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Norway and Sweden believe that recycling waste to fuel is an environmentally friendly way to dispose trash and a great way to generate energy in the process. Sweden, for instance, has now officially run out of garbage. The country now imports as much as 700,000 tons of trash each year to meet the growing capacity of their plants. Norway, on the other hand, has already started experimenting with biogas-fueled public transport. One kilogram of food waste produces roughly half a liter of fuel. The organic waste produced in the country is sufficient to power 135 buses year round in Oslo.

But are all these processes really as eco-friendly as they claim to be? Converting trash into fuel indeed puts it to better use than dumping it in a landfill. But how environmentally friendly is this process? Take the WtE plants in Sweden for example. Close to 50 percent of all their waste is incinerated to generate heat and energy. Nearly 99.9 percent of smoke from this incineration process is carbon dioxide, one of the primary greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Proponents of the trash recycling model argue that what matters is net emission. In the case of thermal WtE systems, one metric ton of Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) generates as much as one metric ton of CO2. That may seem like a lot until you realize that the same trash, when it is disposed in a landfill, could generate close to 62 cubic meters of methane which is twice as potent as a metric ton of CO2 when it comes to warming the planet.

Biogas that is generated by food waste is close to 70% methane, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere upon combustion. Since biogas is derived from food waste, it is regarded as carbon neutral since the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere was originally captured by plants during photosynthesis. Not to mention that biogas replaces fossil fuels in various industries and as a result, we are saving a lot more carbon dioxide through the use of such fuels.

Critics however argue that while converting trash to energy is relatively better than dumping it in a landfill, neither of these solutions is ideal. According to environmental activist David Suzuki, the practice of burning trash to generate energy reduces the incentives a government may have in nudging its citizens to reduce waste by recycling and reusing products.

Take the case of Sweden that is already a net-importer of trash and has been ramping up its energy generation capacity. Imagine a scenario in the future where governments across the world notice this and begin to invest in WtE technologies as well. This would make importing waste more expensive. If Sweden were completely dependent on waste to generate energy at this point, then this could lead to the policy makers creating incentives to generate more waste.

This is of course an exaggeration and the developments in other renewable energy sources like solar and hydropower are more than likely to compensate for the energy demands in future. However, profiting from waste does tend to reduce the incentives that governments may have in identifying suitable alternate forms of garbage disposal. Landfills are a threat to the environment, but so is WtE on a smaller scale. The ideal solution is perhaps something that has not been invented yet.

This is not to say that countries like Sweden are doing it wrong. On the contrary, reducing emissions through WtE is the need of the hour to reduce emissions and delay global warming. However, it is important for governments across the world to acknowledge the negative aspects of WtE at the same time and thereby regard this as a stop-gap arrangement until the world discovers a better way to recycle trash and dispose garbage.

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