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Waste-to-Energy: Less Environmental Impact than Almost Any Other Source of Electricity

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the nation’s 89 waste-to-energy plants produce electricity with “less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” Clearly, today’s waste-to-energy plants are nothing like those old, polluting incinerators of the past. While the combustion of waste as a method of disposal dates back centuries, it was not until 1975 that the combustion of waste for the purposes of generating energy became commercially available in this country. In fact, the first commercial waste-to-energy plant to open its doors in 1975 still operates in Saugus, Massachusetts today, of course updated with stringent emissions control systems that meet or exceed the most stringent state and federal standards.

Waste-to-energy plants today are much more advanced than the incinerators that many remember from long ago. First, as their name implies, waste-to-energy facilities extract energy from the trash, whereas incinerators only attempted to reduce the volume of the trash and did not do a very good job of even that. Waste-to-energy plants use high temperature combustion to reduce the volume of the trash by 90%, lessening the need for valuable landfill space. Also, incinerators employed only rudimentary pollution control equipment, if any. Through a truly public-private partnership, communities and waste-to-energy companies invested approximately $1 billion to upgrade their air quality control systems, employing state-of-the-art quality control devices that reduce emissions from today’s plants to levels far below state and federal standards.

While some still confuse modern waste-to-energy plants with incinerators of the past, the environmental performance of the industry is beyond reproach. Studies have also shown that communities that employ waste-to-energy technology have higher recycling rates than communities that do not utilize waste-to-energy. The recovery of ferrous and non-ferrous metals from waste-to-energy plants for recycling is strong and growing each year. In addition, numerous studies have determined that waste-to-energy plants actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere.

As an industry, IWSA’s members are committed to excellence. This has been proven by the superior operating performance and overall environmental benefits of today’s waste-to-energy plants.

Resources:

Greenhouse Gas Fact Sheet

The Impact of Municipal Solid Waste Management on Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States (Thorneloe, EPA)

Moving from Solid Waste Disposal to Materials Management (Thorneloe, EPA)

Comparisons of Air Emissions from Waste-to-Energy Facilities to Fossil Fuel Power Plants (O'Brien, SWANA)

Ash Reuse Fact Sheet

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