America's Wasting Trash-to-Energy Potential, Supporters Say

The practice of converting waste into energy isn't new, but its advocates argue that it’s underutilized in America.
by | July 25, 2013 AT 6:00 PM

The folks at Covanta Energy’s plant in Alexandria, Va., like to remind you that America isn't going to run out of trash any time soon. Judging by the unfathomable piles of rubbish being sorted by a three-story-tall crane run by Covanta employees on a summer afternoon, they’re probably right.

So Covanta and other companies like it are giving trash a new destiny: Instead of letting it spend decades slowly decaying in a landfill, they’re turning it into electricity for nearby communities. By processing nearly 1,000 tons of solid waste in 24 hours, the Alexandria plant provides enough renewable energy to power 23,000 homes each day.

Energy recovery isn’t necessarily new -- Covanta’s Alexandria plant is one of the company's 40 in the United States and opened in 1988; there are 87 total waste-to-energy plants -- but its advocates still argue that it’s underutilized. About 12 percent of U.S. waste is converted to energy through a chemical combustion process like the one on display inside the Covanta plant. By comparison, Germany converts 38 percent of its waste into energy and recycles the remaining 62 percent. Fifty-five percent of Americans' waste gets dumped in landfills, compared to less than 1 percent of Germans'.

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So why hasn’t energy recovery become a staple of America’s renewable energy portfolio, as it has elsewhere? After all, it’s earned the endorsement of groups like the American Chemistry Council and the Center for American Progress (CAP). Researchers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that burning waste for energy, as the Alexandria plant does, is better for the environment and produces more power than burying it in a landfill and then attempting to extract energy later. And according to CAP, every ton of waste converted to energy offsets approximately one ton of greenhouse gas emissions.

Advocates blame the negative connotation much of the public has with trash incineration, the deep pockets of the landfill lobby, and the vocal coalition that argues America's goal should be eliminating waste altogether -- not turning it into a business.

Energy-recovery proponents, though, point out that while a zero-waste society is a noble goal, it's not achievable for the foreseeable future. So in the meantime, they say, there are some things that state and local policymakers can do to make energy recovery more feasible.

The simplest and first step is investing. The Alexandria plant is jointly owned by the surrounding city and the county, as are many of Covanta’s other facilities across the country.

Then there's the issue of regulations and incentives. According to EPA researchers, only 19 states consider energy converted from waste to be a renewable energy source, even though 30 states count landfill gases converted to power as renewable energy. Redefining energy recovery as a renewable energy source is an important step toward its widespread acceptance, advocates say.

On top of that, according to lobbying materials from the American Chemistry Council, states can ease the permitting process for energy recovery facilities and lead by example by diversifying their own energy purchases.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the number of tons of waste processed by the plant and clarify the national number of plants.