If all of the municipal solid waste (MSW) that currently is put into landfills each year in the US were diverted to waste-to-energy (WTE) power plants, it could generate enough electricity to supply 12 percent of the US total, according to a new study by the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University.
This could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 123 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, the report says.
The report, 2014 Energy and Economic Value of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), including and Non-recycled Plastics (NRP), Currently Landfilled in the Fifty States, found that the recovery of resources from waste in the US increased between 2008 and 2011. During this timeframe, the recycling of materials from MSW improved by 18.5 million tons, and the tonnage of materials processed by WTE facilities grew by 3.8 million tons.
According to the study, though some individual states have invested in infrastructure to boost recycling and energy recovery from MSW — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Hampshire topped the list — European countries have set a much higher standards overall.
The study, sponsored by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), is based on data derived from Columbia University’s 2014 Survey of Waste Management in the US, which looked at waste management statistics during 2011, and from MSW characterization studies in several states.
The Earth Engineering Center also calculated the quantity of non-recycled plastics — a subset of MSW that remains after plastics that can be economically recycled have been extracted — available for energy conversion.
Plastics represent 11 percent of the total US waste stream, the study says. The total recovery rate for plastics, which includes both recycling and energy recovery, increased from 14.3 percent in 2008 to 16.6 percent in 2011. The recycling rate for plastics increased by 21 percent between 2008 and 2011 to reach nearly 2.7 million tons. The study also found that if all non-recycled plastics in the US were converted to energy through facilities that use modern plastics-to-oil technologies, they could produce nearly 6 billion gallons of gasoline.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Trucost, and the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) recently released a report that aims to help companies manage the opportunities and risks associated with plastic use. It articulates the business case for companies to improve their measurement, disclosure and management of plastic use in their designs, operations and supply chains.
Waste already is being turned into energy in several locations around the world. Last year, Waste Management announced it is building a facility that will create pipeline-ready natural gas from its Milam Landfill in Fairmont City, Ill. The processed renewable natural gas will be injected into the pipelines of utility provider Ameren Illinois for withdrawal at other locations, including some Waste Management facilities. Once there, it will be used to fuel truck fleets and other equipment that run on compressed natural gas (CNG).