Since the American Association of Geographers (AAG) held a unprecedented number of sessions on waste in February of this year, the Discard Studies blog has invited participants from the AAG to post their work. This post is by Jordan Howell, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Michigan State University. One of the reasons we’ve created the guest post system is to stimulate conversations between different people working within discard studies, and so we heartily invite feedback, thoughts, and insights to this provocative post in the comments section below.

Wasted opportunities? Waste-to-Energy in the United States

by Jordan Howell

Inside a Waste to Energy plant. Photo by Jordan Howell.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) is a common focus for environmental concern around the world. From its collection using heavy trucks to its eventual deposition in vast landfills or incinerators, MSW can be linked to issues as diverse as greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, and landscape degradation. Here, I consider the status of one practice / technology designed to counter such concerns and ‘green’ solid waste management: waste-to-energy (WtE) incinerators.

If you’re unfamiliar with WtE, the basic premise is that solid waste is burned. Combusted. Destroyed. From the tipping floor where haulers and other trucks deposit waste, a large claw (just like that game you played in the arcade) grabs the garbage and drops it into the furnace, where everything is burned at several hundred degrees. Ferrous metals typically do not burn and ‘fall out’ of the furnace, as does an ash residue. The volume of solid waste is reduced by typically 90%, and while the ferrous metals can be sold to recycling firms, the ash remains to be dealt with. Depending on the facility location, incinerator ‘bottom ash’ goes into a regular landfill, hazmat landfill, or sometimes an ash monofill. In some instances it is mixed with dirt to provide the ‘daily cover’ for functioning landfills, and in other instances it goes into road construction as a component of cement.

Like any combustion process, however, WtE is subject to the laws of physics – while the solid waste itself might be ‘destroyed’, the energy that it contains is not. So, while many solid waste managers would argue that the volume reduction capabilities of incineration are enough to make it a worthwhile practice, additional value comes when the heat from incineration is used to produce steam, which can then turn a turbine and produce electricity and/or be piped from the WtE facility to nearby factories and buildings for heating and cooling purposes (just like a ‘Combined Heat and Power’ boiler at a power plant). This ‘E’ in WtE is a major bonus both economically and environmentally. Economically, as with the recycling of ferrous metals, electricity sales represent a significant revenue stream not only for WtE facilities but the cities, counties, and states that typically own them. In several instances the proceeds from WtE facilities have been ploughed into expanded recycling and composting efforts, in order to keep these materials out of the WtE boiler in the first place. Additionally, electricity produced by WtE facilities represents a cleaner, more stable, and more geopolitically attractive source of power than fossil or nuclear fuels,[1] as noted by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

In spite of these benefits WtE remains relatively underutilized in the United States. At last count there were just 86 facilities operational in 24 states. There used to be a great deal more, but successive waves of federal clean air legislation (quite rightly) prompted a number of plants to close, first in the late 1970s and then in the mid 1990s. As public concerns about global climate change and other ecological catastrophes mount and various scales of government respond with ‘green’ initiatives ranging from purchasing hybrid vehicles to weatherizing buildings, it would seem as though a technology like WtE with its relevant set of environmental credentials should be well-positioned for increased adoption. Yet, no new facilities are planned for the United States. What is limiting WtE? And how does the industry respond?

There are three primary challenges. The first is continued public fear over facility emissions and by-products. Historically, incinerators were closely linked to noxious and carcinogenic emissions, and their location in low-income or otherwise marginal areas offered support to charges of environmental racism. Although the industry, under intense pressure from the US Environmental Protection Agency, now operates far below the limits for carcinogens, mercury, and a host of other toxic substances fears remain over the safety of WtE plants. A range of actors use these controversies over the environmental and human health safety of incinerators to advance their respective positions, something quite familiar for those of us working the tradition of science and technology studies.

Second, economic disincentives exist which make WtE unattractive to governments at various scales (city, county, state, etc.). Simply put, WtE ends up being more expensive than landfilling. Many of these costs are associated with adhering to air quality regulations that landfills do not have to face; or more correctly, costs that cities and the chains of contractors they typically deal with to manage their trash externalize in a way that WtE facilities probably cannot. Likewise, construction of a new WtE facility can cost many times more than the expansion of a landfill; or again, more correctly, it is much cheaper to contract out waste management to private hauling and landfilling companies than it is to build and operate WtE using public funds. Private firms only rarely own WtE plants (though they frequently operate them on contract with municipalities), despite the promise that neoliberalization of waste regimes in the US would lead to greater use of WtE.[2]

Recently, we see the WtE industry and its advocacy groups promoting the technology as ecologically progressive through the language of carbon offsets and renewable energy. This leads to the third challenge facing WtE implementation in the US: it looks primitive. Superficially WtE seems about as technologically advanced as the hammer; after all, the fundamental process is equivalent to the various bonfires that dot urban areas on cold nights. Comparing WtE technology to other renewables like solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal heating seems inevitable when the US EPA and the WtE industry itself make arguments about the technology as a ‘clean’ or ‘renewable’ fuel, but it is a beauty contest that WtE will probably never win.

And so, WtE faces an identity crisis – at least in the United States. And at that, only some states. WtE is shockingly common in the European Union, where the famous ‘landfill directive’ obliges communities to recycle, re-use, and finally incinerate waste before even beginning the discussion on putting it in a landfill. Within the US, some states like Florida and Connecticut have embraced WtE. But the geography of WtE in the United States doesn’t make much sense: Florida could claim to ‘have no other option’ in solid waste disposal because of its geology and susceptibility to hurricanes; Hawai’i might then also be a logical site for WtE and yet only one plant is housed on the islands. Likewise Connecticut could make a claim that (relatively) dense population means land should be put to better uses than storing waste; however New York City should make a similar claim and yet it has no incinerators, preferring instead to truck and barge solid waste to other states (which Hawai’i does too).

The question remains as to why the same waste management practices are embraced in some places and vilified in others. Careful research sensitive to political, social, cultural, environmental, and economic particularities are essential to unraveling the mystery.


[1] Of course, large questions should loom in all of our minds about the environmental impacts of WtE’s fuel source. We must have a thorough understanding of the origins and composition of the MSW that goes into a given WtE facility before we can say for sure that it is ‘better for the environment’ than coal, natural gas, oil, or nuclear power, since, for instance, a given WtE plant may be combusting a large amount of petroleum-based packaging products. What does the fuel supply chain then look like for WtE’s primary fuel source? It may well be more complex than the petroleum supply chain itself.

[2] Similar promises were made regarding the liberalization of electricity markets in the early 1990s, which have turned out to be almost entirely specious in the wake of Enron and PG&E crises of the early 2000s.