Is Waste-To-Energy a Better Alternative to Recycling?

Waste-to-energy systems are used in many jurisdictions around the world. Why do environmentalists fight this proven technology so fiercely?

Episode Summary:

Recycling of post-consumer waste is a cornerstone of environmental movements worldwide. But new technologies like high temperature pyrolysis promise to make incineration of solid waste a clean and viable alternative that creates heating and electricity. It compares very favourably to recycling in efficacy, efficiency and cost, yet can’t shake the old image of 20th-century pollution-causing incinerators. Why?

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Transcript of this week’s show:

In mainstream media, the only thing with more traction than Covid 19 these days is global warming. It’s a top priority for governments, activists and celebrities worldwide and has sucked so much oxygen out of the room in environmental issues that other, important things are going unnoticed. One that crossed my desk recently is waste to energy technology. Burning solid waste is not a new idea, it’s been done for centuries, but doing so with high temperature pyrolysis to reduce emissions has evolved into a highly sophisticated and practical way to cope with the vast amount of solid waste generated by cities worldwide. The Chinese are on a building spree with this technology like they are with most things these days, and they enjoy the major the benefit of burning garbage: heat that can be used to generate electricity. Improvements in the technology notwithstanding, there is of course a diehard group of activists who want it stopped, everywhere. The argument for not doing it is twofold. Emissions of course are an issue, and a legitimate one, but the second is more interesting, primary for its irrationality. A common argument for the suspension of waste to energy programs is that it works in opposition to recycling programs. That isn’t just an allegation, the whole idea of waste to energy is to burn everything combustible, then use the products of that pyrolysis for useful things. This is contrary to current ideas about recycling, except the recycling programs are notorious for high costs, poor recovery rates, and a great deal of product conscientiously recycled by consumers that ends up in landfills anyway. In many jurisdictions, consumer recycling is in fact, a failure, but failure that can never be politically admitted as environmentalism is the proverbial third rail of politics. Unlike most social activities, failure in environmental programs are fine as long as intentions are good, and potentially useful solutions that leverage existing technology, like waste to energy simply don’t fit the narrative. Engineers clearly don’t make these decisions, because waste to energy is a useful technology that offers a net environmental benefit that can replace top-heavy and inefficient consumer recycling schemes in many jurisdictions. So if it works, why aren’t we all doing it? Well, like nuclear energy, simply proving that it works and works well just isn’t enough. It’s a world of stories, of memes, and for politicians, engineers have an awkward habit of telling the truth, and backing it up with evidence. So why aren’t decisions on things like urban waste management devolved to panels of professional engineers with expertise in waste management technology? We don’t let politicians decide aircraft collision avoidance technology, or the level of mercaptans in domestic gas supplies, or sterilization standards for surgical instruments, but we trust them to make billion-dollar decisions about what happens to millions of tons of postconsumer waste, everywhere. 

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.