Is Waste-to-Energy the Future?

By Mark Milby, IUOS No Waste Program Coordinator to the EPA, the U.S.’s recycling rate (waste recycled or composted divided by total waste) was 34% in 2010. Whether or not you find this impressive depends on your perspective; personally, I find the recycling of 85 million tons of material reassuring, but I also roll my eyes since I happen to know that the majority of my trash is recyclable (and then another quarter is compostable).

For proof, take a look at how the EPA breaks down MSW (Municipal Solid Waste – what you and I put at the curb) waste by component (embedded pie chart)… over 80% of it is easily recycled or composted. Like Erik said last week, this stuff is not rocket science: I bring recyclables to the Downtown Bloomington Recycling Center every few weeks, and I have a simple trash can behind my house where I throw food scraps, grass, and leaves. I’ve never bought soil or fertilizer for my garden. 80% waste diversion, easy peasy.

Regardless, 66% of MSW is not recycled. So where does it go? In most parts of the world, it winds up in a landfill. But there’s a sector of waste management growing so rapidly it is altering entire national economies. It’s growing so quietly – perhaps to avoid a potentially negative public reaction – you might not recognize it in your own backyard. I’m talking about waste-to-energy, or the combustion of trash to produce electricity or steam.

Sweden made headlines last week when it was announced that the country is now importing trash from Norway and making plans to expand to Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy. Why? Swedish engineers have increased the efficiency of the waste-to-energy process so much (90%!) that the country now only landfills 4% of its waste. Now, as more and more plants are being built, the country is desperately in need of more fuel. We’re seeing the same scenario in Indianapolis, where the Covanta-owned Harding Street Incinerator is turning trash into steam that heats almost every downtown building, including IUPUI, Eli Lilly, and Lucas Oil Stadium. For more on the Harding Street facility, check out this article by my friend Addison Pollock.,i:72I won’t bore you with pros and cons of this shift, but I will give you a few questions to ask yourself and resources to use as you think about the future of waste-to-energy:

  1. How does demand for trash affect recycling? Anecdotal evidence suggests communities powered by waste-to-energy discourage recycling. Industry argument / Anti-industry argument
  2. Since waste-to-energy produces energy, is it better than recycling? A tricky question – the answer is probably no.
  3. How much pollution does waste-to-energy create? Good summary article
  4. How does it compare to burning fossil fuels for energy? The lesser-of-two-evils argument

Feel free to contact Mark at or visit the No Waste website at


2 thoughts on “Is Waste-to-Energy the Future?

  1. They certainly didn’t highlight the dioxins and toxic substances released in the air, and this concerns me that the no-waste coordinator authors this piece when he should be focusing on eliminating waste and improving recycling and composting on campuses. If waste-to-energy is our future we may have no future at all.

    1. Megan,
      Thanks for your reply. I’m surpised you find a topic with such serious implications for waste disposal and recycling irrelevant to waste reduction and diversion. In this article, I tried to highlight the growing prevalence of this technology and inform readers of the trade-offs involved. Certainly zero waste is better (although I might argue that burning trash is better, ceteris paribus, than burning coal), but the reality is that many communities are adopting this technology right now, and whether we like it or not, we need to be informed.

      Additionally, I also felt the article linked under my point about pollution gave readers an introduction to that subject.

      I firmly believe that waste is simply a consequence of bad design. Thus our goal should be to improve the design, rather than finding a use for the consequences. In the case of waste-to-energy, this use is marginally beneficial at best, with serious, long-term, unintended, and unpredictable consequences to come.

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