Lentis/Energy from Trash

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What is Energy from Trash?

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Energy from trash refers to the process that converts municipal solid waste (MSW) into heat or electricity. MSW is made up of three parts: biomass, non-biomass combustible materials, and non-combustible materials.[1] Converting trash into electricity is a relatively simple way to offset waste production, especially when dealing with non-reusable, non-recyclable materials. The most common form of energy from trash is incineration. This process is often referred to as Waste-to-Energy (WtE).

What is incineration?

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Incineration turns garbage into ash, flue gas, and heat. Trash is burned at temperatures approaching 1000°C, which reduces waste mass by 80-85% and volume by 90-95%. The high temperatures can break down organic compounds, greatly simplifying the disposal of medical waste and other hazardous materials.

WtE Plants

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WtE plants operate in a similar fashion to conventional coal power plants. Solid waste deemed safe to burn enters a chamber where it is incinerated at temperatures close to 1000°C. The heat produced from this reaction is used to heat water into steam which in turn drives a turbine to generate electricity. [2] Carbon dioxide is emitted as a byproduct during this process, but it is a far less potent greenhouse gas than the methane that would be emitted from landfills.[3]

Issues with the Alternatives to WtE Plants

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Two main alternatives to WtE plants are the exportation of the waste or sending it to landfills. Historically, the US has exported around one-third of it's waste to China.[4] However, in 2017, China banned the import of most plastic waste from foreign countries, leaving the US with 37 million extra tons of waste to dispose of.[4] Approximately 50% of the trash generated in the US finds it way into one of the 2,000 US landfills.[5] Most landfills trap and collect gas emissions, but the EPA estimates that at least 25% of US landfill methane escapes into the surrounding environment. This has the potential to leech into groundwater and negatively effect nearby cities. As the US population continues to grows and the amount of waste to increases, the need for more landfills will skyrocket; however, so will the issue of finding space for the large landfills.

Public Perception

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WtE Plants

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Public perception of landfills is at an all-time low, suggesting the need for new ways to manage municipal waste. WtE plants are generally much more desirable than landfills, but not everyone is aware of what they are. A lack of technology does not hold back countries from using WtE plants, but negative public perception or lack of knowledge does. It is shown that a lack of knowledge is linked with public resistance in Vancouver; only 22% of people surveyed considered WtE facilities more desirable than landfills and material recovery, because most people prefer simple recycling.[6] Moving beyond WtE's "dirty" reputation is crucial for acceptance. This stigma has and will continue to prevent expanding use of WtE technology. For example, in Austin, TX in 1984, the government could not follow through on its attempt to bring WtE to the city because of persisting public opposition; however, at the same time, Baltimore was celebrating the opening of its first WtE plant, which is still operational today without any government subsidies.[7]

Environmentalists have mixed opinions as well. Many think it is good because trash is generated anyways, and it will keep it out of landfills. However, there are other groups that are in opposition because they believe trash is not a renewable source of energy, and that it creates a dependency on garbage. A group of New York environmentalists sent a letter to the Executive Director of the U.S. Department of Energy expressing their concerns for classifying WtE as a renewable energy source, because MSW comes from mostly nonrenewable sources.[8]

Rise and Fall of Public Perception in the United States

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The early acceptance and opposition to WtE in the US can be characterized into three waves.

The First Wave

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The first wave was initiated in the 1880s by the increase of waste production from rising urban populations.[9] The idea of WtE plants was quickly accepted leading to the first incinerator built in NY. However, the incinerator was soon abandoned because the US waste stream was much wetter than the European designs could handle at the time, requiring considerably more energy to burn the waste.[9]

The Second Wave

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The second wave was initiated in 1900 when the US adapted WtE plants to efficiently handle the wetter waste stream without inputting large amounts of energy. The fall of this wave came when television advertisements and other media sources encouraged wasteful packaging, like plastic bottles.[9] This caused waste streams to the WtE plants to evolve. The waste streams contained unprecedented amounts of plastic materials that would emit harmful gases when burned.

The Third Wave

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The final wave was initiated in 1980 when concerns began to arise about finding spaces to build more landfills. Reagan's White House encouraged privatization of MSW burning facilities, WtE plants.[9] This privatization coupled with favorable tax law changes and industrial development bonds made WtE projects attractive to the EPA.[9]

By 1990, there were 140 incinerators in the United States.[9] Almost twice that number, however, had been proposed and cancelled eight years later. This is how the anti-incineration movement began. While incinerators have scrubbers that remove most of the toxins from the smoke stack, there was one toxin called dioxin that appeared in high amounts.[9] Dioxins were a known carcinogen. Public awareness of this carcinogen was increased by a scientist named Barry Commoner. As a result, dioxin requirements became more stringent near the end of the 1980's.[9] However, all the toxins removed to comply with air quality regulations ended up in the residual ash. Disposing of the residual ash is expensive since it has to go to a special landfill that will stop toxins like heavy metals from leaching into the ground water. This made the public wonder if a process that produces such a dangerous compound should continue to be implemented.[9]

Case Studies

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WtE in Europe

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The Swedish Government has poured billions of dollars into subsidies and contracts for mass construction of WtE plants, which can cost anywhere from $150 million to $230 million.[10] This mass construction has caused an odd problem for Sweden: the combined capacity of waste intake of these plants now exceeds the amount of waste produced by Sweden and as a result, Sweden imports much of its needed waste from other countries. Nations exporting waste to Sweden actually pay Sweden to take in the trash but this ends up saving them money as well because like Sweden, they also have expensive landfill taxes that they are trying to avoid. [11] It is likely that Swedish officials and policy makers foresaw a waste shortage but determined that it could be used as a way to generate profit. Given the culture of government in Sweden, it is almost certain that they will continue to find ways of maximizing energy production through WtE plants.

While the Swedish Government has been actively supporting WtE, groups within the nation as well as in other parts of Northern Europe have expressed opposition. One environmental group in particular, the Zero-Wasters, has been vocally opposing WtE. [12] Zero-Wasters believe that all waste should be recycled or reused and that no form of waste should be sent to either landfills or WtE plants. Specifically regarding WtE plants, they argue that it is more practical to recycle rather than incinerate. Furthermore, they take issue with the methods by which these plants are funded. The plants are built by private companies with government contracts. Since the goal of these companies is to generate profit, they need a steady supply of waste to keep the plant running and producing revenue. Zero-Wasters argue that requiring this supply of trash reduces the need of people to recycle and is thus more wasteful both environmentally and financially. [13]

Opposition to WtE in Sweden offers interesting perspective on the dynamic between engineering, policy making, and citizenry. While engineers, scientists, and policy makers widely agree that WtE is an environmentally safer alternative to landfills, groups such as the Zero Wasters continue to fight against it, simply because they still emit carbon dioxide. Furthermore, recycling in Sweden has actually increased as more WtE plants were built, contrary to the argument of Zero-Wasters. [14] It could be contended that this disconnect is due to the fact that the Swedish Government went ahead with these plants without really getting public input and opinion while simultaneously not doing an effective job of communicating WtE science and benefits to the public.


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Like Sweden, Norway has invested in WtE plants across the country. Unsurprisingly, Norway too is facing a waste shortage and has had to import trash from neighboring countries. [15] Based on first person interviews, Norwegian citizens seem more supportive of WtE than the Swedes but opposition does exist. Environmental groups in Norway make similar arguments as the Zero-Wasters in Sweden but it is unlikely that WtE in Norway will end anytime soon.

WtE in North America

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There are currently 86 waste-to-energy plants in the United States, compared to 32 in Sweden. However, the population of the US is over 30 times that of Sweden, so a much smaller fraction of US trash is being incinerated. WtE plants are most common in densely populated areas where property values are high, and therefore the cost of digging new landfills is prohibitive. Northeastern states and Florida contain most of the WtE plants in the US.

US public opinion largely turned against incinerators 1960s and 70s because of all the emissions, particularly dioxins. Dioxins were the most toxic ingredients in Agent Orange, which the United States used to destroy crops and jungle in the Vietnam War. These chemicals had horrible lasting effects on exposed members of the Vietnamese population, causing deformities, gene mutations and cancer. However, following the Clean Air Act of 1970, WtE plants must conform to much stricter emissions standards. According to Paul Gilman, Chief Sustainability Officer at Covanta, WtE is now cleaner than coal, releasing less greenhouse gases and dioxins. [16]

The EPA now classifies WtE as renewable energy, but prioritizes reduction, reuse, and recycling over incineration. According to Dave Ciplet, U.S. coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, "by recycling materials, you conserve three to five times more energy than is generated by incinerating them." [17]

While the public supports recycling programs, county officials either promote recycling or build incinerators, but not both. Building an incinerator is expensive, so most incinerators have minimum trash requirements. If recycling programs reduce trash, then the locality would have to import trash to meet cost, or they might default on their loans. So while incinerators and recycling are great MSW management systems, they can compete against each other.[9]

Unfortunately, recycling is stagnating in the US; the recycling rate has barely increased in the last 10 years, hovering around 34%. [18] The economic feasibility of recycling is tied to how much money can be made back from the sale of recovered commodities like plastics, metals, and paper. These materials’ prices have been low in recent years, driving up the effective cost of recycling.

In 1984, a consulting firm in California interviewed many incinerator companies and residents who supported and opposed incinerators. They found the least-resistant populations and relayed this information to companies. This information got leaked as the Cerrell report and was used to organize opposition against incinerators. Many of these “least resistant” groups did not want to be taken advantage of by incinerator companies.[19]


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Because the state of Florida is densely populated, and there is not a lot of open land, they have taken heavily to incineration to produce energy from their MSW. Florida alone contains more than one fifth of the nation's WtE electricity generation, while only comprising about 6% of the nation's population.[20] An example is Lee County in Florida: they transform upwards of 10 million tons of trash into electricity, per month. This is enough to power 30,000 homes in the area; however, a lot of people do not recognize or appreciate the energy system they have in the county.[21] After Hurricane Irma, Florida was left with a lot of extra trash (upwards of a 20% increase for days). The WtE facilities were very useful in transforming that waste into usable electricity.

Edmonton, Canada

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Edmonton has built an MSW to biofuels and chemicals facility, the only one of its kind in the world. They sort their waste manually and mechanically to pick out things that do not belong (such as electronics and tires), and send the organics to a composting facility. The remaining waste is shredded, heated, and converted to synthetic gases. This process keeps over 100,000 metric tons of waste out of landfills and provides 38 million liters of ethanol each year.[22] This facility has been in the making since 2008, and officially opened on June 4, 2014. Enerkem is also looking to open a facility in Mississippi because of its highly positive reactions by local community members.[23]

Baltimore, Maryland

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There are three WtE incinerators in Maryland, one of them is in Baltimore. The Wheelabrator incinerator was built in 1985, and is responsible for 82% of SO2 emissions in the city and 64% of NOx emissions. The Wheelabrator complies with Maryland air quality standards. It processes 700,000 tons of trash and releases about 120 pounds of lead, 60 pounds of mercury, 99 tons of hydrochloric acid and 2 tons of formaldehyde each year. It also generates power for 40,000 homes annually, and recovers 11,000 tons of metals from MSW.[24]  Many opponents are opposed to the pollution it brings to the community. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for the watershed, commissioned a report that states the Wheelabrator emissions cost the state of Maryland $21 million annually in healthcare expenses. They say the high NOx emissions from the plant can cause chronic bronchitis, exacerbated asthma symptoms, and even death. This group wants to reduce the NOx emission standards to 150 ppm/day.[25]

In 2011, state legislation transitioned WtE incinerators to a tier 1 renewable energy source, equating them with windmills and geothermal energy.[26] This allows them to receive millions in subsidies each year. The legislators supported this by citing the EPA. The agency prefers incinerators to landfills, since landfills generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas.[27]

Local high school student Destiny Watford learned in 2014 that a company was going to build a new incinerator a block away from her school. She grew up in Baltimore knowing how pollution can damage a community, so she began to organize high school students. In 2014 students advocated against the new incinerator at a school board meeting, and in 2015 they staged a sit-in protest at the Maryland Department of the Environment.[26] Seven students were arrested. Due to public backlash, the company never built the incinerator. For her grassroots efforts, Destiny Watford won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016.[28]

WtE in China

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Boasting almost 1.4 billion people in 2018 and doubling their population since 1960, China has seen unprecedented population growth. [29] This has come with growing pains especially in regards to waste and trash. With Beijing alone producing almost 9 million tons of trash in 2017, China has been struggling to find a sustainable long term solution to their trash problem. [30]

The Shenzhen government has begun construction on the largest WtE incinerator on the planet. This plant would be able to incinerate about 5,000 tons of trash every day (⅓ of the daily trash for the city).[31] Shenzhen residents, fearing waste leaching into a nearby reservoir and air pollutants in residential areas, have launched a legal battle to stop this project. Their hope is to move the incinerator away from natural resources and to less populated areas in China.

The Shenzhen lawsuit is one of dozens across China which aim to stop the construction of these facilities.[32] The city of Guangzhou was able to halt the construction of a WtE facility by protest and legal battles. Citizen groups blamed a “total lack of public consultation or urban planning procedure on the part of the government.” Thousands of residents protested outside of public official’s offices and homes in response to this plant. The riot police had to be called in to calm the protests. The protestors were ultimately able to halt the construction of the WtE facility. [33]

This is part of the larger NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movement across China. NIMBY aims to stop the construction of public or industrial facilities near residential areas.[34] In China, NIMBY is a derogatory phrase to reference the opposition of these public industrial facilities. NIMBY implies a selfishness of the opposition towards the community. [32] Although, some would argue that this movement is based in a deep long standing distrust of the government regulations of the industry. This distrust leaves citizens skeptical of oversight abilities and the ability to incinerate garbage in a clean way. [35]

A central concern of many of opponents to WtE facilities is the enforcement of environmental regulation for second and third tier cities. They would argue first tier cities, like Shenzhen, will have strong pollution controls, while the second and third tier cities will have cheap and poor quality incineration plants. This fear remains high as cynicism of the government's ability to oversee these facilities runs rampant. [32] A recent corruption scandal in Shenzhen, in which officials took bribes from smugglers, has reinforced this fear. [36] If the Chinese government truly wants to implement these WtE facilities in China, they must win back the trust of the people or they will continue to face staunch opposition.

This is an example of the Thomas Theorem playing out in China. Even if these WtE plants are a good solution for China, it doesn't matter because citizens believe their government to be corrupt. The consequences of these beliefs are real as the government tries to implement these WtE plants.


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WtE is one of many possible solutions to rising waste problems. With much disinformation and public backlash surrounding this solution, it is all the more important to know the trade-offs of building these plants. With WtE plants many different variables are being juggled. Cities and citizens get the benefit of substantial removal of waste and energy creation in the process. But, they will have higher levels of air pollution, possible groundwater leaching or damage of natural resources, and the eye sores of a large industrial plant, These trade-offs must be carefully analyzed and presented to citizens as they decide whether WtE plants are the appropriate solution to their waste problems.


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  1. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/?page=biomass_waste_to_energy
  2. U.S. Energy Information Administration
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/04/business/worldbusiness/04iht-rbogwaste.html
  4. a b Daley, J. (2018, June 21). China's Plastic Ban Will Flood Us With Trash. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/chinas-plastic-ban-will-flood-us-trash-180969423/
  5. National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling. (2018, October 26). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials
  6. Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Van
  7. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/waste-to-energy-a-mountain-of-trash-or-a-pile-of-energy/
  8. https://www.nypirg.org/pubs/enviro/solidwaste/CommentstoDOEon1703LoanGuaranteeSolicitation5-27-14.pdf
  9. a b c d e f g h i j Walsh, E. J., Warland, R., & Smith, D. C. (2010). Don't Burn It Here: Grassroots Challenges to Trash Incinerators. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State Press.
  10. Seltenrich, Nate (2013, August 28). Incineration Versus Recycling: In Europe, A Debate Over Trash
  11. Tagliabue, John (2013, April 29). A City That Turns Garbage Into Energy Copes With a Shortage. The New York Times.
  12. Seltenrich, Nate (2013, August 28). Incineration Versus Recycling: In Europe, A Debate Over Trash
  13. Seltenrich, Nate (2013, August 28). Incineration Versus Recycling: In Europe, A Debate Over Trash
  14. Seltenrich, Nate (2013, August 28). Incineration Versus Recycling: In Europe, A Debate Over Trash
  15. Tagliabue, John (2013, April 29). A City That Turns Garbage Into Energy Copes With a Shortage. The New York Times.
  16. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/burning-trash-solution-our-garbage-woes-or-are-advocates-just-blowing-smoke-180959924
  17. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/04/business/worldbusiness/04iht-rbogwaste.html
  18. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/us/garbage-incinerators-make-comeback-kindling-both-garbage-and-debate.html
  19. Cerrell Associates, I. (1984). Political difficulties facing waste-to-energy conversion plant siting.
  20. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=25732
  21. http://www.nbc-2.com/story/33071864/10-million-tons-of-trash-transformed-into-energy
  22. https://www.edmonton.ca/programs_services/garbage_waste/biofuels-facility.aspx
  23. http://www.chemicals-technology.com/projects/edmonton-facility/
  24. Wheelabrator. (2018). Wheelabrator Baltimore. Retrieved from http://www.wtienergy.com/plant-locations/energy-from-waste/wheelabrator-baltimore
  25. Chesapeake Bay Foundation. (2017, December 11). CBF Study: Baltimore Incinerator Causes $55 Million in Health Problems Per Year. Retrieved from http://www.cbf.org/news-media/newsroom/2017/maryland/cbf-study-baltimore-incinerator-causes-55-million-in-health-problems-per-year.html
  26. a b Dance, S. (2017, December 15). Power struggle How a trash incinerator — Baltimore's biggest polluter — became 'green' energy. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/environment/bs-md-trash-incineration-20171107-story.html
  27. Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, March 29). Energy Recovery from Waste | Municipal Solid Waste. Retrieved from https://archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/web/html/index-11.html
  28. Goldman Environmental Prize. (2016). Destiny Watford. Retrieved from https://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/destiny-watford/
  29. The World Bank. (2018). Population, total | Data. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?year_low_desc=true
  30. Zhuang Pinghui. (2018, July 1). Beijing struggling to contain its growing garbage problem. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2153308/beijing-struggling-contain-its-growing-garbage-problem
  31. Schmidt-Hammer-Lasse Architects. (2018). SHL – Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from http://www.shl.dk/shenzhen-east-waste-to-energy-plant/
  32. a b c Michael Standeart. (2017, April 20). As China Pushes Waste-to-Energy Incinerators, Protests Are Mounting. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-china-pushes-waste-to-energy-incinerators-protests-are-mounting
  33. Wong Lok-to. (2017, May 10). Guangdong Protesters Hail Victory As Government Backs Down on Incinerator Plan. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/victory-05102017114936.html
  34. Peter D Kinder. (2018). Not in My Backyard Phenomenon | sociology. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Not-in-My-Backyard-Phenomenon
  35. Siyi Mi. (2017, November 27). Hot Times: Waste-to-Energy Plants Burn Bright in China’s Cities. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2017/11/default-post/
  36. Bliss, B. (2018). China Corruption Report. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.business-anti-corruption.com/country-profiles/china/