The proposed and approved regional incinerator planned for Frederick County is also referred to as a “Waste to Energy” facility. These incinerators are not just another kind of electricity-producing power plants, burning municipal waste instead of natural gas or coal. They would never be built for that purpose, since, as generators of electricity, they cost as much as dozens of times more than natural gas, and a lot more than solar or wind power, or even nuclear power.
These large mass burn incinerators are built, at great cost to taxpayers, to reduce a highly mixed stream of municipal waste to ash. In modern incinerators, the incineration of these materials produces electricity is a byproduct that is sold to help offset a portion of the cost of operating the facilities.
The industry’s sales pitch emphasizes the energy production, even attempting to portray it as “green” or “renewable” energy, and, more often lately, as part of a “zero waste to landfill” strategy.
But the evidence reveals that, rather than producing what might be considered bonus energy, converting the typical municipal waste stream to ash and energy is actually a waste OF energy.
That may sound counter-intuitive, but the amount of energy produced by a so-called Waste to Energy incinerator is considerably less than the amount saved by recycling the recyclable materials that would be burned.
Consider the following examples:
Manufacturing a ton of news paper from trees takes 11,699 kilowatt hours (kwh)(1). If that ton of paper is burned, it can produce 1,875 kwh(2) of electricity to sell. That’s a loss of 9,824 kwh.
Incinerating paper wastes 9,824 kwh per ton!
If that ton of paper is recycled, a new ton of paper can be made using only 6,442 kwh. That’s a saving of 5,257 kwh
Even plastics such as PET (soda bottles) that have a high heat content as fuel (10,250 btu/pound) produce only 2,403 kwh per ton when burned yet require 9,619 kwh/ton to make. That’s another loss of 7,216 kwh/ton.
Incinerating soda bottles wastes 7,216 kwh per ton!
If that ton of plastic is recycled, a new ton of plastic can be made using only 1,222 kwh. That’s a saving of 8,397 kwh.
It takes 62,512 kwh of power to manufacture a ton of aluminum. Most incinerators do not attempt to recover aluminum from the ash. Beverage cans and other thin aluminum with high surface-to-volume ratios are oxidized to ash. All of the energy invested in making the aluminum is wasted.
Incinerating aluminum cans wastes 62,512 kwh per ton!
If that ton of aluminum is recycled, a new ton can be made using only 4,865 kwh. That’s a saving of 57,647 kwh.
4) Food Scraps:
To work efficiently a “WTE” incinerator must have fuel with an average heat content of 5000 to 5500 btu/pound. Food scraps have a heat content of only 2600 btu/pound. They actually dilute the fuel of an incinerator.
Food scraps are another resource wasted by incineration!
Food scraps, which make up 13% of our waste, can be composted to make a valuable soil amendment, replacing fertilizers made from fossil fuels.
All the manufactured products that are used as fuel for an incinerator take a lot of energy to make. If they are recycled instead of burned, they save much, much more energy than is produced by an incinerator.
Burning usable resources to produce a meager amount of electricity is like burning your furniture to heat your house and then bragging about all the heating oil saved.
1) Figures for process energy for manufacture are from the EPA Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases — A Life-cycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks; 3rd Edition, September 2006; Exhibit 2-4 pg 27 and Exhibit 2-6 pg. 29
2) Values for heat content are from The Energy Information Administration (DOE) Methodology for Allocating Municipal Solid Waste to Biogenic and Non-Biogenic Energy; May 2007; pg 10.
Electricity produced from stated heat content assumes a 40% thermal efficiency for a steam-cycle generating plant.