Where's the waste?

Departments - Editor's Focus

June 5, 2014
Kristin Smith

Kristin Smith


If you attended the North American Waste to Energy Conference (NAWTEC) in early May, you may have seen me give a presentation as part of that event’s Waste-to-Energy Lightning Round. It was a neat concept where a dozen or so industry stakeholders were given two minutes to provide a succinct message.

The concept I chose to focus on was how advancements in waste processing are affecting supply at waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities. In order to convey the message, I used one slide with an image from the iconic Wendy’s commercial in which one of the three white-haired ladies gets out her glasses to examine the large bun and small beef patty in front of her. “Where’s the beef?” she famously asked. My question to NAWTEC attendees was, “Where’s the waste?”

You will read about some WTE capacity expansions in our spring conventions coverage, “Fueling Discussion,” beginning on p. 40. But facilities like the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility in Dickerson, Maryland, have seen their volumes decline. While in 2004, the facility was bringing in 650,000 tons per year, a decade later it reports bringing in only about 550,000 tons, a decline in volume of 100,000 tons. And as another NAWTEC Lightning Round presenter aptly pointed out, the WTE industry is still very much competing with landfills for material.

Waste industry trends have to be somewhat of a wake-up call for traditional incinerators because they are affecting volumes, and the trend of less waste is only going to continue to grow. It makes me wonder how waste-to-energy facilities are going to have enough material to feed their boilers in the future.

As communities and businesses try to capture as much from the waste stream as possible, waste is going to be reduced, recycled, composted, digested and turned into fuel products, leaving only the remnants for waste incinerators. Mixed waste processing facilities in San Jose, California and Montgomery, Alabama, process the entire waste stream for recycling, composting and biogas production, and Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York City are requiring commercial food waste to be diverted for composting or anaerobic digestion — material that once may have gone to a waste-to-energy plant.

Furthermore, if you ask companies such as Kroger, Procter & Gamble and Walmart, “Where’s the waste?” they may soon answer, there is none. Secondary materials from these large waste generators may eventually end up in waste-to-energy facilities, but not before all other alternatives including packaging reduction, refuse-derived fuel or on-site waste conversion technologies have been explored.

So like the ladies from the famous Wendy’s commercial, WTE facilities soon may be asking the question, “Where’s the waste?” And they will be tasked with the challenge of finding it.