Are incineration and landfills the answer to save us from the recycling crisis?
For plastic recycling, this year hasn’t exactly been one of the best – what is to blame? Oil.
Shockingly, it actually costs more to recycle old plastic than it does to make new in many ways. Petroleum prices have fallen so low, as low as 70% below the level in June 2014. This may be great for some – however with it has fallen the cost of Virgin Plastic which is made from oil.
Recycling is the best method for dealing with waste, isn’t it? Environmentally – yes. If you were to recycling one tonne of aluminium, you would save 14,000kWh of electricity. Should you decide to make it from scratch from raw materials, you would use more energy than the average household uses in an entire YEAR. The less profitable recyclables are things like Paper based products – you could however still save a week’s worth of energy by recycling one tonne of Cardboard – around 390 kilowatts.
Recyclers are also able to make high profits by selling on materials. Scrap Aluminium is worth around £1,000 per tonne. Paper based materials sell for around £60-£90 per tonne.
Back in a time where plastic cost a lot more than it does now, recycling helped offset the expense of recycling less profitable materials such as Glass. The problem now is as the value of Plastic has dropped, it has produced a knock on effect across the entire industry.
In the US, Waste Management’s recycling division posted a $16m loss in the first quarter of 2016, and the company has been forced to close almost 30% of its facilities. Not only this, eyebrows have been raised over the treatment of workers and the amounts of ‘recyclable material’ still being shipped to Landfill & Incineration sites.
We find far too often that where some products can be processed, it certainly means far from all. Lots of facilities can only process one or sometimes two types of plastic. On the flip side of this, those facilities that take all types of plastic sometimes result to taking certain types to landfill anyway as the profit margin after processing isn’t economical for them.
Fortunately, technology has advanced and in hand with environmental regulations, made other disposal options possible. Let’s take a look at how three Waste Management options compare.
Waste to Energy (WTE) refuse incineration burns waste to generate electricity. Not only does this dispose of refuse and reduces landfill, it also generates 500kWh of Electricity per tonne of waste incinerated. This is around the same about of energy produced by burning a third of a tonne of Coal.
Despite there being so many good benefits, the main problem is the lack of the facilities that exist. In the whole of the US there are only 84 WTE facilities in operation – with the first new facility in 15 years opening last year.
The main reason for this is that WTE facilities are very expensive to construct. Most companies will offset the cost by negotiating long-term contracts with Local Authorities and large companies.
“Cities get locked into a contract and can end up on the hook for huge fees to waste processors, regardless of whether or not there is enough waste for them to process,” says Monica Wilson, US and Canada program director at Gaia, a not-for-profit organisation that fights waste-to-energy garbage incineration.
Pollution is another big concern – she goes on to add “Whether dioxin, mercury, lead and other toxins go out the stack, are captured, or end up in the ash that is left over after incineration – they’re still there,”
Nickolas John Themelis, an engineering professor at Columbia University and chairman of the Global Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council, argues that pollution concerns blown out of proportion and not in context with reality.
“Studies have shown that the entire US WTE industry produces 3 grams of dioxin per year,” he says. “By comparison, there are over 3,000 landfill fires reported every year, and they produce 1,400 grams of dioxin.”
As for the high costs of WTE plants, Themelis believes that a large part of the expense is caused by critics, who with opposition of a legal kind, can make this technology unprofitable. “These plants are very expensive to build, and years of litigation by a very vocal minority can make it too expensive.”
Despite this, many areas are committed to reducing waste continue to use WTE. Where it isn’t possible to build new plants, some choose to discreetly ship their waste to existing facilities. In 2014, New York City committed to send 800,000 tonnes of trash to a facility in New Jersey.
Burying the problem: Landfill
Landfills are the most common and economical waste management solution. Costs vary from country to country. The cost of using landfill usually covers the entire lifetime cost of using this method, from the purchase and preparation of the land to maintenance and monitoring.
Landfills have a terrible reputation of being a huge problem for the environment – they are to blame too often for Ground Water contamination and Air Pollution. The main problem is consumer behaviour.
Anne Germain, the director of waste and recycling at the National Waste and Recycling Association. “Many of the things we see in landfills could have been reused or recycled, but consumers didn’t put them into the reuse or recycling waste streams,”
Contrary to popular belief, Landfills can also produce energy. In 1996, the US EPA passed laws requiring large landfills to capture their gas emissions.
“Landfill gas” – which contains methane, CO2 and about 30 hazardous organic compounds – can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels to produce heat and electricity.
According to their research, the EPA state that 648 of the 2,400 municipal solid waste landfills in the US have one or more landfill gas collection projects running alongside them. Around 400 more could be used for generating methane cost effectively. If they were, they could power around 473,000 homes.
Despite conflicting statements, Germain argues that landfills represent a realistic, promising solution to waste processing.
“The idea that we can divert all of our waste is a dream. It’s not going to happen soon. In the meantime, landfills have to exist to catch the things that we can’t take out of the waste stream.”
Digestion: swallowing our waste
Some communities produce a lot more ‘Organic Waste’. For this, Anaerobic Digestions offers an environmentally friendly solution.
Tim Flanagan, general manager at a Monterey, California anaerobic digestion plant, compares the process to a giant crock pot:
“We put in a mix of material – about 75% food waste and 25% organic yard waste – and let it cook for 21 days. It produces methane, which we use to run an engine generator. We have a net yield of about 80kW, which helps power a nearby sewer agency.”
After fermentation has taken place, the remaining matter goes to an on-site composter, where they it is turned into a fertiliser that is sold to local farms and similar industries.
In the US the charge is around $51.75 per tonne, with discounts for separated organic material and food wastes. Flanagan says the digester costs slightly more than landfilling, but uses far less space, produces less pollution and more energy.
As the digestion takes place in a controlled environment, this also allows Gases emitted to be collected.
The facility wants to start compressing the methane collected. This could then fuel its fleet.
Flanagan says, “We’ll have trucks picking up food waste, and digesters turning it into fuel to run the trucks, so they can pick up more waste,” Flanagan says.