Converting wastes into energy runs against the very principle of protecting mother Earth and mitigating climate change. Those advocating it should pause—there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Burning trash to generate power is actually dirtier than burning coal. Like other incinerators, they release incredible volumes of tiny pollutants into the air that will contaminate the atmosphere and lead to a health crisis.
The House of Representatives has passed a bill allowing the use of waste-to-energy and redefining the incineration ban in the Clean Air Act. Current laws, however, contradict the waste-to-energy recourse. The Clean Air Act imposes high restrictive standards for incineration, basically the primary waste-to-energy technology.
Another law that could douse talks about waste-to-energy fuel is the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act that mandates the use of landfills for waste disposal. The Renewable Energy Act contradicts the axiom of the former. One law mandates only landfills for waste disposal while the other is pushing the Department of Energy to prescribe policies and programs promoting and enhancing development of biomass waste-to-energy facilities.
A group in the European Union that does not warm up to the idea of the technology. Waste comprises of discarded materials like plastic, paper and glass. Over 90 percent of the same materials that end up in incineration plants and landfills could be recycled or composted. Environment advocates say the burning of these valuable materials to generate electricity discourages efforts to preserve resources and creates incentives to produce more waste.
Landfills have limited capacities. Studies have shown that a large volume of plastics that now clog the world’s oceans come from the Philippines, which is ranked one of the biggest contributors to plastic pollution in the seas. The nation, sooner than later, we will run out of space to dump its wastes.
Environment advocates contend that waste as a source is not an effective fuel. Incinerators waste large amounts of recyclable materials just to produce only small amounts of energy. Recycling and composting, meanwhile, can save up to five times the amount of energy produced by burning waste.
Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), the European network of communities and organizations working towards the elimination of waste in the region, cited that the amount of energy wasted in the US by not recycling aluminum and steel cans, paper, printed materials, glass and plastic, is equal to the annual output of 15 medium-sized power plants.
The group is also critical of incinerator companies often marketing waste-to-energy as a source of renewable energy. Unlike wind, solar or wave energy, it says waste does not come from infinite natural processes—it is obtained from finite resources, like minerals, fossil fuels and forests, that are cut down at an unsustainable rate. Subsidies to support incineration could be better invested into environmentally friendly, energy saving practices like recycling and composting, it added.
Waste-to-energy also does not come cheap. Such facilities would require higher tipping fees that are charged against waste generators, including local governments.
It will not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the ultimate bearer of the additional costs from waste-to-energy production will be the consumer—without adequate government support in the form of funding and incentives, as experienced by countries with successful waste-to-energy systems like Singapore and Japan.
The ZWE cited many cases of municipalities that have ended up in debt because of incinerators, while others are trapped in long-term contracts that force them to deliver a minimum quantity of waste for 20 to 30 years to repay the investment cost. The group added that waste-to-energy plants offer relatively few jobs when compared to recycling. The livelihood of millions of waste workers worldwide depends on recycling. The ZWE cited studies showing that the sector creates 10 to 20 times more jobs than incineration. With a national rate of less than 33 percent, the US recycling industries currently provide over 800,000 jobs.
In developing countries like the Philippines, the ZWE says building incinerators will take jobs away from informal waste workers, including waste pickers, recyclers and haulers, adding that investment in recycling, reuse and composting can enable informal workers to transition to these green jobs.