In 2009, the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) adopted a revised definition of zero waste to assist businesses and communities in defining their own goals. The group’s official definition as noted on its website is:
Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.
Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.
Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.
With that definition, the idea of waste-to-energy (WTE) technology serving a purpose in a zero waste plan seems out of the question. But some industry officials maintain that WTE has a role in the future of waste management—under different terms.
“Some state regulatory agencies (including California and Florida) have written it into their systems and calculations of progress toward zero waste. Some organizations have adopted a position that says WTE is a disposal technology because it leads to a single use of potentially-reusable materials,” says David Biderman, the executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) based in Silver Spring, Maryland. “SWANA believes local governments have the responsibility to make that determination according to their needs, local systems and relevant state regulations.”
Zero waste or zero waste to landfill?
WTE’s role in a waste reduction strategy can depend on whether an organization is targeting zero waste or zero waste to landfill—an important distinction.
“Often companies will say they have ‘zero waste to landfill’, which generally means that WTE plays heavily into their zero waste plans,” Anne Germain, director of waste and recycling technology for the Washington, D.C.-based National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA). “But they still generate waste. And ultimately, the ash from the WTE goes to a landfill albeit at a significantly reduced volume or weight,” she says.
And while this strategy falls short of the vision laid out by groups like ZWIA, it is being embraced by many companies.
“For waste that cannot be reduced, reused, or recycled, WTE is a critical technology to recover energy and materials that would otherwise be landfilled. Solid waste hierarchies throughout the nation recognize WTE as an important and preferred component to keeping waste from landfills.,” says Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council based in Arlington, Va. “As long as there is a market for landfilling waste, there will be policy and business objectives that can be met by WTE.”
But implementing WTE in a zero waste plan isn’t without its challenges. For example, siting WTE facilities remains a challenge.
“Like any large infrastructure project, costs, benefits, and permitting must be weighed at a specific location to ensure that the project is viable,” Michaels says.
But Biderman points to opening of the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County’s Renewable Energy Facility in 2015 as a demonstration that these obstacles can be overcome.
“SWANA supports integrated solid waste management, implemented on the local level. This means that different communities will select differing disposal options, based on economics, environmental impacts, and other factors,” he says. “About 12 percent of the MSW generated in the U.S. is currently disposed via WTE. SWANA expects that percentage to stay relatively stable over the next few years.”
Technology remains key
Regardless of which definition or terms are utilized for zero waste, WTE officials say the technology is key in waste management plans.
“WTE plays a vital role in protecting the environment since it keeps waste from landfills, generates electricity that displaces fossil fuels, and recovers recyclable metals that were not collected by conventional recycling programs,” says Michaels. “As a result, WTE helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by recovering vital materials and energy that can be recirculated back into the economy. As a complement to waste reduction, reuse, and recycling, WTE ensures that the waste management sector has the least impact on the environment.”
Michelle Nadeau, senior manager of communications and public policy for Wheelabrator Technologies in Portsmouth, NH, agrees saying the U.S. EPA has endorsed energy-from-waste as a renewable source of energy, an alternative to fossil fuels, like natural gas, coal and oil, and a preferred method for waste disposal before landfilling, making it a value in waste management plans.
“As a growing part of waste management solutions worldwide, energy-from-waste facilities are recognized for playing a valuable role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions through landfill methane avoidance, fossil fuel generation displacement and recycling of metals, as well as a vital contributor to sound, local sustainable solid waste management,” she says. “In addition, communities with energy-from-waste typically have higher recycling rates than the national average and the recycling rates of the states in which they operate demonstrating that recycling and energy-from-waste are compatible waste management strategies.”