Waste to Energy

What it is and how it works

Waste to energy is defined as “Incineration process in which solid waste is converted into thermal energy to generate steam that drives turbines for electricity generators” (What Is Waste to Energy? Definition and Meaning, 2016). This process takes old waste products that would normally be thrown into a landfill and burns them, turning the steam into useable energy. There are seven stages in the waste to energy process. The first step is collecting waste and dumping it into a large pit (Energy Explained, Your Guide to Understanding Energy, 2016). Second, a giant claw scoops waste from the large pit and loads it into a combustion chamber (Energy Explained, Your Guide to Understanding Energy, 2016). Third, the fuel is burned releasing heat which leads to the fourth step of heating up the water in the boiler and turning it to steam (Energy Explained, Your Guide to Understanding Energy, 2016). The fifth step includes using the high pressure steam to turn the blades of a turbine generator to produce electricity (Energy Explained, Your Guide to Understanding Energy, 2016). The sixth step removes pollutants from the combustion gas before it is released through a smoke stack using an air pollution control system (Energy Explained, Your Guide to Understanding Energy, 2016). Finally, the ash is collected from the boiler and the air pollution control system (Energy Explained, Your Guide to Understanding Energy, 2016). In 100 pounds of waste, more than 85 pounds can be burned as fuel (including paper, plastics, and yard waste) to generate energy (Energy Explained, Your Guide to Understanding Energy, 2016). In a waste to energy plant 2000 pounds of garbage is reduced to 300 to 600 pounds of ash (Energy Explained, Your Guide to Understanding Energy, 2016).

Click here to watch a how to video


Picture from: http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm/data/index.cfm?page=biomass_waste_to_energy


Our modern methods of waste disposal are incredible compared to what they were in the 19th century.  In earlier times, waste was dumped in the streets and left there.  This included a wide variety of things.  Food waste, raw sewage, trash and even animal carcasses!  Their ideas of management were to leave the waste in the streets, dump it just outside of the city, or worse, dump it in their local bodies of water.

The rise in urbanization in the 19th century meant an increase in populations in cities.  Increased population brought more waste, and after several outbreaks of cholera, the importance of removing said waste and having facilities where it could be effectively managed was becoming slowly realized.

Then, the first incinerator was built, specifically to deal with excess waste.  It was designed by Albert Fryer, and built in Nottingham by a company called Manlove, Alliot & Co. Ltd (Herbert, 2007).  These incinerators began to show up all over the globe; one was built in New York City in 1885 and it burned nearly one third of the city’s trash (Manevich, 2013).  Incinerators were the preferred method of waste management for many years, until the effects on the environment started to become known.  In the 1960’s, governments began to enact legislation with laws that became increasingly stringent for environmental control for municipal incinerators.  These laws began as regulatory; they were mostly concerned with what was considered nuisances, such as visible plumes of smoke and odors (National Academy of Sciences, 2000).  As time went on, these regulations evolved to emission standards (National Academy of Sciences, 2000).


It goes without saying that one of the biggest advantage of waste to energy technology is the reduced volume of waste that must be stored in landfills (Greentumble, 2016). Another huge advantage is the energy that is produced as a by product of burning it.

A second advantage of using waste to energy technology is that it need for landfill space is greatly reduced (Greentumble, 2016).  This occurs because once a landfill can no longer accept any refuse, another location where we can put our waste must be secured.  Incinerators decrease the need for land because the waste that is brought to them is burned, not stored.  This is really important to communities where space is an issue.  Since incinerators last many years, there is no need to find land on a regular basis.

We must also consider that waste to energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions.  Landfills with decomposing garbage emit methane; a potent greenhouse gas (Solid Waste Disposal Authority, 2016).


One of the biggest disadvantages of waste to energy is the creation of pollutants.  Even though there are many pollution controls in place, some pollutants still enter the atmosphere (Greentumble, 2016).   This is of obvious concern, since pollutants have a negative on human life.

Another concern raised is that waste to energy encourages people to create waste, rather than be diligent about recycling materials (Greentumble, 2016).  To go along with this, people argue that waste to energy technologies actually decrease the rates of recycling because those who use incinerators burn materials that should really be recycled (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, p.3, 2013).

So who’s in on it?


In Sweden, 99 percent of waste and garbage is recycled in some way (The Swedish recycling evolution, 2013).  They have provided recycling stations that are located centrally in neighbourhoods and that are accessible to the population (The Swedish recycling evolution, 2013).  There are 32 waste-to-energy plants in Sweden, and these plants provide heat for 810,000 households and electricity for 250,000 private homes (The Swedish recycling evolution, 2013).  Amazingly, they burn nearly two million tonnes of trash annually! (Less than 1% of Sweden’s Trash Ends up in Landfills, 2016).

Click here to watch Sweden’s waste to energy video

United States- MAP

In the U.S., many WtE projects have been stopped or delayed, as there is much debate surrounding the practice.  A couple of cited issues are that they will hurt local recycling efforts and increase urban pollution (Haugen, 2013). That being said, at the end of 2015, there were 71 WtE plants across the U.S., mostly located in Florida and the Northeastern states (Waste to energy electricity generation concentrated in Florida and Northeast, 2016).  The amount of energy created by these plants was relatively small, totalling about 0.4% for electricity generation for 2015.

When it was discovered that burning waste released many pollutants into the environment, many plans for new waste to energy plants came to a halt (Waste to energy generation concentrated in Florida and Northeast, 2016).  The first WtE plant to come online since 1995 opened in Palm Beach last year, while other plants have added required equipment for energy generation since then (Waste to energy electricity generation concentrated in Florida and Northeast, 2016).


Picture from: http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=25732


Japan is the largest user of WtE technology in the world; in particular with gasification technologies (Themelus & Mussche, p.12, 2013).  Yearly, Japan generates about 65 million tonnes of waste, 40 of which is treated thermally, and two percent of this total ends up in a landfill (Themelus & Mussche, pg.2, 2013).  Japan can be considered one of the leading countries in thermal technologies, as they come up with newer technologies that may not necessarily be economically viable in pother parts of the world (Themelus & Mussche, p.2, 2013).


China is currently building what will be the biggest incinerator in the world.  It is slated to be completed by 2020, and will process 5000 tonnes of garbage per day (Crew, 2016).  Right now, China has twenty WtE plants that are operating in fifteen cities, and statistics show that there are 140 more facilities that have either been completed, are under construction or have been proposed for construction (Yuanyuan, 2015).  In 2013, China had 172.39 million tonnes of waste, and this number has been increasing annually at a rate of 8-10% since then (Zhang, Huang, Xu & Gong, p. 14183, 2015).  With little space in the country for landfills, it seems that China is making use of WtE technologies to deal with their surplus of waste.

Click here to learn more about China’s waste to energy plant


In Canada, as of 2014, there were seven WtE facilities operating across the country.  As the table below shows, they all treat different types of wastes.  It also shows that there are more facilities that have been proposed, or are in the construction phase of development.  These operating facilities handle approximately one million tonnes of waste, and when the new facilities become operational, they will be able to handle another one million (PPP Canada, 2014).  In 2010, Statistics Canada reported that Canada generated about 33 million tonnes of waste, and that approximately 77% of that waste ended up in a landfill (PPP Canada, 2014).  So what is stopping Canada from using more of its waste for energy? Landmass.  Canada is a large country with a lot of space that historically could be used for landfills.  That being said, there are now more stringent rules for use land for landfill purposes and much more vocal opposition to the process as well (PPP, 2014).


Picture from: http://www.p3canada.ca/~/media/english/resources-library/files/ppp_efw_eng_pf5.pdf



“Waste-To-Energy (Municipal Solid Waste) – Energy Explained, Your Guide To Understanding Energy – Energy Information Administration”. Eia.gov. N.p., 2016. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

“What Is Waste To Energy? Definition And Meaning”. BusinessDictionary.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.

Crew, B. (2016). China is building the largest waste-to-energy plant in the world. ScienceAlert. Retrieved 10 October 2016, from http://www.sciencealert.com/china-is-building-the-largest-waste-to-energy-plant-in-the-world

Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. (2013). Waste Incinerators: Bad News for Recycling and Waste Reduction. Retrieved October 14, 2016 from http://www.no-burn.org/downloads/Bad%20News%20for%20Recycling%20Final.pdf

Greentumble. (2016). Waste Incineration: Advantages and Disadvantages. Retrieved October 10, 2016 from http://greentumble.com/waste-incineration-advantages-and-disadvantages/

Haugen, D. (2013). Is burning garbage green? In Sweden, there’s little debate. Midwest Energy News. Retrieved 10 October 2016, from http://midwestenergynews.com/2013/10/17/is-burning-garbage-green-in-sweden-theres-little-debate/

Herbert, Lewis (2007). “Centenary History of Waste and Waste Managers in London and South East England”. Chartered Institution of Wastes Management.

Less Than 1% Of Sweden’s Trash Ends Up in Landfills. (2016). IFLScience. Retrieved 10 October 2016, from http://www.iflscience.com/environment/less-1-swedens-trash-ends-landfills/

Manevich, Y. (2013, March 17). A Timeline of Solid Waste Management in New York City. Retrieved October 12, 2016 from https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/macbride13/research/a-timeline-of-solid-waste-management-in-new-york-city/

National Academy of Sciences. (2000). Regulation related to Waste Incineration. Retrieved October 10, 2016 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK233621/

National Waste & Recycling Association. “History of Solid Waste Management”. Washington, DC.

PPP Canada. (2016). P3canada.ca. Retrieved 10 October 2016, from http://www.p3canada.ca/~/media/english/resources-library/files/ppp_efw_eng_pf5.pdf

Solid Waste Disposal Authority. (2016). Benefits of Waste to Energy. Retrieved October 14, 2016 from http://swdahsv.org/benefits-of-waste-to-energy/

The Swedish recycling revolution. (2013). sweden.se. Retrieved 10 October 2016, from https://sweden.se/nature/the-swedish-recycling-revolution/

Themelis, N. J., & Mussche, C. (2013). Municipal solid waste management and waste-to-energy in the United States, China and Japan. In 2nd International Academic Symposium on Enhanced Landfill Mining, Houthalen-Helchtere

Waste-to-energy electricity generation concentrated in Florida and Northeast – Today in Energy – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2016). Eia.gov. Retrieved 10 October 2016, from http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=25732

Zhang, D., Huang, G., Xu, Y., & Gong, Q. (2015). Waste-to-Energy in China: Key Challenges and Opportunities. Energies, 8(12), 14182-14196.


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