Waste-to-Energy’s Role

November 15, 2012
Sarah T. Garvan

Waste-to-Energy’s Role

At this time, 27 states and territories define municipal solid waste (MSW) as a renewable energy source when diverted to a waste-to-energy facility. The New York State Energy Law classifies “wastes” in the definition of a renewable energy resource. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York state differentiate between MSW diverted for combustion with energy recovery and MSW discarded in a landfill or combusted without energy recovery.

Waste-to-energy is an important component of the county’s integrated solid waste management plan, since it supports the objectives of New York state’s Solid Waste Management Plan. Below are some of the plan’s quantitative goals and a description of how waste-to-energy complements them.

Maximize Reuse. The waste-to-energy process maximizes the capture and reuse of ferrous metals that otherwise would have been buried in landfills. According to a study published in 2003, waste-to-energy plants operating in the U.S. recover almost 800,000 tons of ferrous metals and more than 850,000 tons of other recyclable materials annually. Last year, Westchester’s facility recovered more than 12,500 tons of ferrous metal from waste that was delivered to the facility. Although this material ideally would have been separated for recycling by the waste generator, it is fortunate that it can still be recovered.

Maximize Recycling. As previously mentioned, studies have shown that throughout the U.S., communities that use waste-to-energy facilities routinely report higher recycling rates than those without such facilities. According to a study of more than 500 communities across 22 states that use waste-to-energy for waste disposal, these areas boast recycling rates at least 3 to 5 percentage points above the national average. The study also found that state and municipal solid waste policies and programs have a greater effect on recycling rates than the method of final disposal.

Westchester County ranks among New York state’s top recycling counties. In 2008, the county instituted an aggressive recycling enforcement program that resulted in a significant increase in its curbside recycling rate, thereby demonstrating that by instituting innovative programs, recycling can increase within waste-to-energy jurisdictions.

Minimize Waste Disposal. The residual generated by the incineration process is ash, which must be disposed of or beneficially reused. Currently, Westchester County’s ash is beneficially reused as daily cover at a landfill. Obviously, this is not ideal, since landfills are not an adequate solution to waste management. However, as of 2006, nine states approve the beneficial use of waste-to-Energy ash as a construction material for road construction. Although New York State is not among those states that will allow for the beneficial reuse of ash, applications are proven. If ash can be used beneficially, you can achieve “zero waste” by recycling and composting everything possible and then using the residual to generate electricity, heat and construction materials.

Create “Green Jobs.” An integral part of Beyond Waste is the premise that decreasing the amount of material that is routed to a landfill creates the potential for local green jobs, to aid with economic development. Wheelabrator of Westchester employs 64 individuals. Without the waste-to-energy facility, these jobs would not exist, and instead there would be a need to transfer solid waste from the county to distant landfills—requiring truck and rail operations. Although this work would be important, it is “greener” and preferable to provide employment in the more advanced sectors that Wheelabrator of Westchester offers.

Maximize the Energy Value of Materials Management. Waste-to-energy technology maximizes the energy value of solid waste that would otherwise be disposed of in a landfill. Waste-to-energy facilities in the U.S. generate approximately 17 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy annually, which is roughly 20 percent of the nation’s non-hydroelectric renewable energy. Moreover, waste-to-energy generates many more times the amount of energy than can be harnessed from the capture of methane gas from landfills.

Minimize the Climate Impacts of Materials Management. Waste-to-energy is a proven method for reducing greenhouse gases. Every ton of solid waste processed at a waste-to-energy facility saves approximately one ton of carbon dioxide equivalents from being emitted into the atmosphere. Waste-to-energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding the combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity; avoiding methane emissions associated with landfills; and through the recovery of ferrous and nonferrous metals from waste. In the case of Westchester County, using the Charles Point Waste-to-Energy facility in Peekskill reduces the greenhouse gases that would otherwise be emitted if the county were required to transport its waste to a distant landfill.

Minimize the Need for Long-range Export of Residual Waste. An added benefit of using waste-to-energy is that it avoids any environmental justice issues surrounding waste management. Environmental justice is defined by EPA as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Very few people want to live next to a landfill that contains their own garbage, and fewer want to live next to a landfill that contains someone else’s waste. Waste-to-Energy obviates the need for long-range transfer and disposal. The footprint of a plant is much smaller than the comparable space needed to landfill residual. Thus, waste-to-energy facilities can be built where the waste is generated rather than exported to a region that is less populated and perhaps less affluent.

Other municipal actors have realized the benefit of waste-to-energy as being a sustainable local solution. New York City has resolved, “To convert waste to clean energy as part of PlaNYC, the city’s ambitious sustainability agenda,” according to the Office of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and has issued an RFP to build a waste-to-energy facility on the site of the closed Fresh Kills landfill.

Westchester County does not need to export its nonrecyclable solid waste to another county, state or region. The facility makes this possible. Further, since many communities nearby still depend on long-range transport, improvements in recycling rates will not decrease the available feedstock, or profitability, of the facility. As Westchester County improves its recycling performance, capacity at the plant is made available for private haulers and others that need a place to dispose waste.