Waste-to-energy plants: panacea for all evils or last resort?

Why waste-to-energy plants might be a solution for non-recyclable waste. Or maybe not.

Let’s be realistic for a moment: a zero waste lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. And even if we like the idea, we will most likely not be able to find the willpower needed to achieve such an objective. Recycling is definitely a step towards a more sustainable future and it can help us alleviate our feeling of guilt about our impact on Earth.  However, we will always produce some non-recyclable waste for the rest of our lives. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), in one year every European citizen produces about 200 kg of hazardous waste. The technology options for treating non-recyclable waste are complex and they usually share one main goal: they turn waste into a valuable resource that we can use. For instance, waste can be used to produce domestic heat and electricity, it can be broken down into chemical products and gas in order to generate energy or it can be turned into fuel for burning.                                                                                                                   

A way to get rid of non-recyclable waste is by using a waste-to-energy power plant, sometimes wrongly called incinerator.                                                                         

In addition to the production of energy that the name itself suggests, these facilities also help to reduce groundwater contamination. Just think about leachate, the contaminated liquid that is formed every time precipitation falls on landfills: it penetrates underground aquifers and pollutes them. Moreover, landfills emit potent greenhouse gases as garbage rots away.     
In 2020, the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen will open the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant and it will burn 5,000 tonnes of trash every day (in December 2015 Shenzhen landfill collapsed and killed dozens of people nearby). What makes this facility different is that it will also be a visitor center. You will have the opportunity to learn about each step of the incineration process and you will realize the impact and damage waste is causing. Chris Hardie, the winner of the competition for the design of the plant, states that «the waste challenge is all about education–and experiencing the scale of the challenge is part of that education process».
Shenzhen (China), the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant
Photo: Shenzhen (China), the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant

The limitations of Wast-to-energy plants

Even though the use of waste-to-energy plants can represent a solution to the problem of landfills that are now really full (if interested in how Brexit could make the waste crisis in the UK worse, you can read more here: https://www.theguardian.com/suez-circular-economy-zone/2017/sep/20/were-running-out-of-landfill-and-brexit-could-make-it-worse-says-new-report), we have to keep in mind that this process also has some disadvantages. These modern facilities can generate combustion temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius, which is the minimal level required for maximum efficiency in the destruction of potentially unsafe and hazardous organic materials and gases. If compared to older incineration facilities, modern plants have cut their emissions of toxic pollutants and heavy metals to a minimum. However, emissions of hazardous substances such as mercury, arsenic and dioxin still do occur. Moreover, waste-to-energy plants are great emitters of CO2that, as we all know, has a lot of negative effects on air pollution and climate change since it contributes to the greenhouse effect. The conclusion is straightforward: even if we use waste-to-energy plants, the zero impact does not exist. That’s why we must work hard to ensure that as little waste as possible ends up in our rubbish bin.


I hope we will think more about the medium and long-term consequences of our behaviors and of our daily choices and not only about our short-term whims. I hope we will try to find opportunities to go green by reducing, reusing and recycling. I hope we will be part of the solution, not part of the pollution.    
Troy Moth’s photo of a bear living in a landfill