Building a Future for Energy Recovery

The waste management industry is abuzz with discussions on what is known as the waste-to-energy (WTE) approach or energy from waste (EFW). Proponents list WTE successes in managing waste and generating energy as part of an integrated waste management plan.

According to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association’s (CPIA) website, energy recovery is the use of a fuel source to generate a different type of fuel source such as heat, electricity or even a fuel such as diesel. When we talk about energy recovery in the waste management field we mean transforming municipal waste via a thermal, chemical or biological conversion into renewable energy. This takes place at a specially designed WTE plant or factory. Today’s plants are designed for extreme efficiency and there are no harmful emissions released in the process.

In order to understand the full picture of why we’d recover energy we need to examine how we currently manage our waste. In Canada, approximately 22 per cent of total municipal solid waste is recycled, 8 per cent is reclaimed through energy recovery and 70 per cent is disposed of in landfills. These numbers tell a story about our waste management system and that alternatives needs to be found to the landfill method which is not a sustainable or long-term solution.

Critics wonder about how the WTE approach fits in with current waste management programs such as recycling. There has been a 4R hierarchy for the past 40 years; reduce, reuse, recycle and recover. At each stage in the cycle materials are removed from the waste stream. So far, communities that have initiated energy recovery have planned to improve efficiency; to only recover what can’t be reduced, reused or recycled first. Studies in the U.S. and Europe have demonstrated that a WTE approach actually improves the reduction of waste and increases recycling efforts in the regions that implemented an energy recovery model. This is because they worked to reduce the amount of waste first, then recycle materials, with WTE as the final step in the chain.

“In the recycling process additional feedstocks are always generated because materials are contaminated or rejected,” comments the Alberta Plastic Recycling Association’s (APRA) Executive Director, Grant Cameron. “Recovery then is complimentary to the recycling process and handles the residual materials.”

The costs of building WTE facilities are also on the minds of many. An article in “Resource Recycling” by industry experts Rick Brandes and Eileen Brettler Berenyi suggests while there are costs in WTE, it offers a unique approach in the fact that it solves the issue of managing waste and also generates energy at the same time. Benefits include the use of waste as an energy source that replaces coal and natural gas, has lower greenhouse gas emissions than other energy sources while diverting materials away from the landfill. Multiple studies have been conducted to prove emissions are harmless and there is no measurable effect on human or environmental health. Proponents of energy recovery also list the added economic activity in the waste management industry and the creation of jobs as a reason to move ahead with energy recovery.

European countries and the U.S. have already embarked on the energy recovery method of waste management. There are 260 facilities in Europe and 87 in the U.S.. Canada has a great opportunity to learn from the world leaders in energy recovery and implement best practices and leading-edge technologies in our country.

CPIA will be involved in further discussion with industry experts in the spring of 2014 as part of an energy recovery symposium.

For more information on energy recovery visit the CPIA website:

http://www.plastics.ca/EnvironmentalSustainability/EnergyRecovery/index.php#3rs

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