WtE Challenges in the US
The Economist’s Babbage blog today discusses the challenges that confront the barely nascent waste-to-energy sector in the US. Until recently, a blend of negative public opinion, unfavorable economics and tax policies have stymied the domestic development of relatively clean, electricity-producing incineration.
As the fundamental twin problems of over-consumption and landfill use are more clearly realized, the country needs to take a closer look at both WtE technology and its levels of material consumption. Incineration is different these days:
Industry subsequently spent billions retrofitting incinerators with activated-carbon injectors and particle traps to capture the dioxins and furans, as well as volatile metals like cadmium and mercury. Thanks to new regulations, the emission of such toxic chemicals from waste processing has been reduced a thousandfold. Today, the total emission of dioxins and furans produced by all the incinerators in America is less than ten grams a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By contrast, homeowners burning rubbish in their backyards are reckoned to contribute up to 500 grams a year. Some of the worst emitters are the fireworks used to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Even so, municipal incinerators—especially the new waste-to-energy (WTE) plants that use rubbish as a fuel for generating electricity and heat for local distribution—continue to have an image problem. In America, most communities prefer their waste to be composted—provided, of course, the landfills are nowhere near their own backyards. Yet, without costly plumbing, landfills produce copious quantities of methane from their decomposing waste. As a greenhouse gas, methane does more than 20 times the damage to the environment as comparable emissions of carbon dioxide.