Waste-To-Energy Is Making A Comeback As Recycling Lags

Municipal recycling has stalled and maybe now it makes sense to incinerate plastics and other solid waste in plants that create energy.

According to a headline and lengthy recent New York Times article: “Garbage Incineration Makes Comeback, Kindling Both Garbage and Debate”.

It seems that some communities, apparently a growing number, feel that recycling and composting really don’t make a lot of sense. The article focuses on a commercial garbage incinerator with a capacity of 3,000 tons daily about to start up in West Palm Beach, Florida. It’s the first such facility in about 20 years in the United States. Waste-to-energy plants, widely used elsewhere in the world, are also being studied or built in Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington.

According to data released annually by the Environmental Protection Agency, national recycling rates have slowed after a fast takeoff in the 1990s. From 2010 to 2012, recycling rates nudged just slightly higher, from 34 to 34.5 percent. Rates went from 10.1 per cent in 1985 to 28.5 per cent in 2000. It’s hard to get a read on composting data that would involve compostable plastics because the EPA data includes yard waste, which constitutes the great bulk of composting and is separate from streams that would include food waste and plastic. I suspect those numbers are still tiny and not budging much.

The New York Times cites two interesting examples of what’s happening:

*Indianapolis charges a fee for curbside recycling and has a recycling rate of just 10 percent. The other 90 percent is incinerated.

*Ocean City, Maryland, has dropped its recycling program and saves $500,000 by shipping all waste to an incinerator.

It seems like a great divide is emerging in the United States on how to deal with solid waste. West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Seattle promote and subsidize composting and recycling programs, which they feel are successful. There are pockets of similar thinking in other parts of the U.S. But many, if not most, places seem to struggle with the complexities and costs of recycling and composting.

For plastics, incineration is not a bad outcome. Many plastics are theoretically recyclable. But in practice, only PET bottles (31 percent in 2012) and HDPE white translucent bottles (28 percent) play a meaningful role in the commercial recycling stream, according to the latest available EPA data. And plastics have a higher fuel value and are much cleaner than coal.

The incineration route would also end the silliness of the marketing claims of many plastics as “recyclable” or “biodegradable”. If you listen to producer claims virtually all plastics are recyclable even reinforced thermosets. There’s a huge chasm between theoretical and economically practical. California has even banned use of the word biodegradable and only allows use of the word compostable when ASTM standards are met.


EPA Data show a slowing in recycling rates.

EPA Data show a slowing in recycling rates.




About Doug Smock

Former Chief Editor at Plastics World and Senior Technical Editor Design News
North America

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