As technologies to convert waste into energy develop there have been concerns that the industry would one day put an end to recycling. Instead of using secondary commodities to manufacture new goods, those materials would instead be used to create energy, thus eliminating the need to recycle. That concern seems to be largely unfounded.
Even in communities such as Lancaster County, Pa., where trash is sent to a mass burn waste-to-energy facility (WTE), the solid waste authority claims a 40 percent residential and business recycling rate. Why would communities still make the effort to recycle when these materials could be converted into energy? The answer is simple. There is a tremendous value in recycling.
There is a large global demand for recovered fiber, scrap metal and plastics. People will pay high prices for this material. That is not likely to change any time soon. Recycling is one way to divert materials from a landfill and conversion to energy is yet another.
Recyclers know the residuals that are left over after a sorting process are costing them money. The more material they can recover, the less money they have to pay in their own landfill costs. It can make economic sense for recyclers to find ways to use their residuals (such as hard-to-recycle plastics and papers, auto shredder fluff and fines material) in a waste-to-energy system. Recycling facilities have much to gain by being innovative with the material they cannot recycle. Turning it into an energy source by pelletizing it, burning it, gasifying it or anaerobically digesting it is the next step in business expansion opportunities for many recyclers.
Recycling and waste conversion can coexist. The development of waste conversion technologies could certainly change how recyclables and waste are handled and separated. Separating out the organic fraction of waste could become a more popular practice, for example. But eliminating or replacing recycling altogether? Not likely.
Rather than compete with recycling companies for materials, the waste conversion industry is increasingly working with recyclers to provide them with an end market for their residuals. If waste-to-energy companies will be competing with anyone, it will be in securing a feedstock—a necessary component to ensure the longevity of a WTE facility. That feedstock could potentially be provided by a MRF or auto shredder.
Instead of competing for material, what may ultimately make the most sense is for a feedstock preparation system to be installed on the back end of a MRF, as well as to have energy be captured at landfill sites. Instead of being competitors for material, the recycling, solid waste and waste conversion industries can find ways to work together to extract the most value from the waste stream.