Many valuable materials are currently being discarded rather than used productively, and more needs to be done to maximize the value we recover from material streams. Unfortunately, building energy recovery facilities to handle the existing waste load creates a requirement to continue generating the same amount of waste, creating potential problems for plans to reduce waste. Waste is the fuel for the energy facility, and an energy facility built to a specific capacity will need a specific amount of fuel to meet that capacity.
However, waste is wasteful. Waste is the result of process inefficiencies or inefficient use of materials between different processes. It is not a renewable resource, and as we begin to use materials more efficiently and to reuse more materials in different processes, there will be less material in the waste stream. This article considers how to both productively reduce waste and safely recover energy when these two activities are planned strategically as part of a larger materials management system that carefully considers overall system capacity.
First, the existing system is unsustainable. In many cases we are generating more waste, not less, and recycling rates are generally flat or increasing too slowly. Despite some innovative and effective efforts to reduce waste and increase recycling in some locations, in general, the U.S. is still moving a very significant amount of material to landfills. According to the EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008, despite improvements in the national recycling rate, we still move 54 percent of our discarded materials to landfills.
Second, the current waste stream not only contains problematic materials, but also contains valuable commodities. While there are materials in the waste stream that may cause harm to humans and the environment if not handled properly, there are also many materials that may be put to productive uses. The EPA’s 2008 Facts and Figures data also indicates about 64 percent of discarded material may be reusable or recyclable. This includes rubber, leather, textiles, plastics, metals, glass and paper, although it may not be currently possible or economical to reuse or recycle some materials, and some materials may be too contaminated by organic matter like unwashed food containers or greasy pizza boxes. Additionally, about 32 percent of MSW is organic material (not including soiled paper products) which can be the input for energy generating facilities.
Third, streamlined and revised regulations and policies are necessary to allow and create market activity. Innovative, entrepreneurial people have long sought ways to reuse materials that others throw away. These materials can become cheap inputs to processes that add a lot of value and end up creating savings for waste management and revenue from new products. However, using waste can be problematic and difficult because of the rules associated with the reuse of materials that have entered the waste stream. New and revised rules that recognize the potential value of common material streams and allow for safe reuse are necessary to fully stimulate new material markets.
Lastly, recovering energy from waste can be productive and clean, but Energy-from-Waste (EfW) processes that use mixed MSW (plastics and organics) should not be eligible for renewable energy incentives. These incentives are designed to promote and maximize energy generation and do not consider waste reduction or materials management goals. More importantly, broadly speaking, mixed waste is not a renewable resource since it can contain inorganic material such as petroleum-derived plastics.