Waste-to-Energy Q&A

We realize that not everyone understands what Waste-to-Energy is and how it fits into the waste diversion process so we decided to provide this short Q&A session to help educate our readers.

What is waste-to-energy (WTE)?

Waste-to-energy, or WTE, is pretty much what its name implies: using waste as a source of energy. However, there are many different ways by which energy can be derived from waste.  For instance, Green Circle Certified® defines energy recovery from waste as “the conversion of non-recyclable/non economically recoverable materials into heat, electricity, or fuel through a variety of processes, including combustion, gasification, pyrolyzation, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas recovery.”

Is waste-to-energy (WTE) “recycling?”

While there is a recurring debate in the environmental community as to whether or not waste-to-energy has an affect on recycling rates, there is an almost unanimous consensus that WTE is clearly a process distinct from recycling. However, if an organization claims to send zero waste to landfill, it’s common for them to dispose of non-reusable, non-compostable, and non-recyclable items via WTE.  Instead of recycling, some more appropriate terms for WTE are things like “energy recovery” or “landfill diversion.”

Even though general waste-to-energy practices are not considered recycling, are there specific sub-processes, such as fuel blending, which could still be considered recycling?

Depending on whose definition you use, you will get different answers for this. Some groups, like the Recycling Certification Institute, define recycled materials as “materials processed chemically, physically, or biologically into mulch, compost, and biofuel.” Using this definition, wood recovery for biofuel could be considered “recycling.” However, other groups, like the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, define recycling as putting materials “back into the material cycle” within the “original product loop.” Therefore, waste items such as wood, which change state when used as biofuel, would not qualify. However, under this same rule, waste-to-energy processing of waste oil could be considered recycling. This is because companies like EnergyLogic® argue that every gallon of waste oil contains the same amount of energy as the oil it had before it was used – meaning recapturing and burning waste oil would not break the original product loop.

A recent article on the Environmental and Energy website, Environmental Leader, entitled “Are You Recycling or Fuel Blending?” delves deeper into these kinds of distinctions.

Is WTE a more environmentally friendly practice than sending waste to landfills?

This is another controversial area with strong arguments on either side. Another important thing to note is that not all organizations consider all WTE practices as “landfill diversion.” For instance, the US. Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC) states that WTE facilities with operations running over 200⁰F (biological temperatures and pressures) cannot be classified as landfill diversion. There are many different types of WTE practices, and each has its own benefits and draw backs. We encourage you to evaluate what your needs and environmental objectives are as an organization and consider how utilizing waste-to-energy as a landfill diversion option might affect these.