We generate mountains of waste each and every day as a society across the world. However, modern processing now allows us to turn that waste into energy. As such, it is important to consider the benefits of waste to energy as we seek means to limit our negative impacts on the planet and make more efficient use of our resources.
Instead of taking our waste to landfill, why not look at the options that are available to us? Instead of letting our waste go to waste, we can use it to create energy.
From food waste to paper waste and even wood, all of it can produce methane emissions when placed in landfill1. As a result, whilst the waste sits there, it pollutes the environment. What is more worrying, is the fact that methane is more damaging than Co2. So, we can reduce this negative impact and pollution by using waste to create renewable energy3.
Essentially, if we toss our waste into landfill, it will produce more greenhouse gases than if we use it to create energy from it. So, with modern waste processing techniques we prevent these emissions from landfill damaging our environment and do something good at the same time.
In its simplest form, waste to energy involves taking our waste and turning it into energy5. To get to the point where we can produce energy, the waste has to go through a specific process. There are several methods that we can use to do this. This can include anaerobic digestion or fermentation both of which are known as biochemical8. There is also thermochemical which can include gasification or pyrolysis4.
We can use all of these methods to turn waste into several energy products including natural gas, biochar, bio-oil and hydrocarbon fuels such as diesel and gasoline.
As our planet is suffering at the hands of humans and our wasteful ways, we now have a feasible option. It is an alternative that provides us with a source of renewable energy. So, instead of throwing waste into landfill, we can become more proactive and use waste to produce energy. When we consider that we throw away 1.3 billion tons of food waste each year, waste to energy has the potential to offset our ways2.
Sending our waste to landfill has always been the easy option. It gets dumped and buried and in time it will decompose. However, landfill takes up a lot of space and it destroys habitats and landscapes. Along with this, there is an even more significant problem that we have to address - the release of methane.
When our waste is placed in landfill, it gives off methane. This gas is extremely harmful to our environment, more so than CO2. While it does not hang around in the atmosphere as CO2, it absorbs more heat, making it a contributor to global warming.
If we use our waste in the right way, we can create a huge amount of energy from it. Waste to energy facilities can use this waste to create gas7, they can create electricity and heat as well as other fuels.
Inevitably, we will always generate some waste. Turning this waste into energy means that we can create fuel sources that enable us to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Whether it is food waste or other organic waste we can put it to good use. When we consider the amount of waste we generate we can enhance energy efficiency through using these new energy sources.
Better still, a ton of waste can generate as much as 700 kilowatt-hours of energy. This is enough to power one home for almost a month.
The entire process of turning waste to energy is sustainable. We don’t call on fossil fuels or non-renewable sources to make it happen. Most of the processes are natural such as the anaerobic digestion process. As a result, the organic waste is turned into a source of energy that would have once been lost when placed in landfill.
Another benefit of waste to energy plants is that they effectively fuel themselves. As a result, we do not only create energy, we also prevent the release of harmful gases into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. What’s more, energy from waste centres can prevent the use of 200,000 barrels of oil on an annual basis. This can help to conserve our oil stores and ease the burden on our planet.
Of course, there are costs associated with generating energy from waste. This will be dependent on the technology used. However, the financial advantages come from no longer needing to transport waste or placing it in landfill. Along with this, there is the financial aspect that derives from generating energy that can be sold on. As a result, savings can be made but it is also possible to profit from this sustainable source of energy.
Our drive to lower emissions comes at a price to our economy. In the UK, as an example, there are estimates that 28,000 jobs will be lost. This is a result of the low-carbon economy that the UK government is striving for6.
Despite this negative forecast, there is some potential light at the end of the tunnel. As jobs are phased out through the transition to a low carbon economy, new jobs will become apparent in a new industry.
A waste to energy plant will require a workforce. Along with this, as the technology becomes more widespread, the need will increase. As we move into an era of greater sustainability, it is likely that the employment landscape will change and move in a new and exciting direction.
We will always have waste, there is no denying this fact. We will always need energy too. So, the key benefit of waste to energy brings the two together, creating a cleaner, more sustainable energy.
However, it's not perfect. Waste to energy plants still use energy and create their own by-products. Some also argue that they can reduce recycling.
As such, there is a lot of work to be done. Testing new technologies such as waste to energy and solar energy can help us to determine which of these energy recovery options work best when it comes to meeting our needs. And as improvements are had the ultimate outcomes of turning waste to energy will likely become more positive.
Air pollution is a real problem. Needlessly creating and filling landfill sites just adds to the issues we face. Therefore, we should look to use these energy solutions as a way to change the future. The amount of waste we generate on a global level is astronomical. If we can put this to good use, then there is no doubt that it can be a real game-changer in our quest to become more sustainable.
|Bogner, J., and Matthews, E. ( 2003), Global methane emissions from landfills: New methodology and annual estimates 1980–1996, Global Biogeochem. Cycles, 17, 1065, doi:10.1029/2002GB001913, 2.|
|Melikoglu, M., Lin, C. & Webb, C. (2013). Analysing global food waste problem: pinpointing the facts and estimating the energy content. Open Engineering, 3(2), pp. 157-164. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2020, from doi:10.2478/s13531-012-0058-5|
|Richa Kothari, V.V. Tyagi, Ashish Pathak, Waste-to-energy: A way from renewable energy sources to sustainable development, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 14, Issue 9, 2010, Pages 3164-3170, ISSN 1364-0321, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2010.05.005|
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|W Gujer, A J B Zehnder; Conversion Processes in Anaerobic Digestion. Water Sci Technol 1 August 1983; 15 (8-9): 127–167. doi: https://doi.org/10.2166/wst.1983.0164|