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Waste to Watts: How Today's Garbage Can Be Tomorrow's Electricity

Burning garbage was something we once did to get rid of garbage that we didn’t know what else to do with.  But old incinerators built a few decades ago were environmental nightmares.   They released into the environment large amounts of what amounted to poison in the form of dioxins, furans, and toxic metals such as mercury.

But today’s incinerators are not your father’s incinerators.  Driven by environmental laws passed to curb the release of such toxins, incinerator technology has gotten better – a lot better.   New technology burns trash at up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  At that temperature, the molecular bonds in toxic chemicals break down. This significantly reduces emissions from the burning.   The exhaust gases can then be used to produce steam to produce electricity.  The gas is then further processed to remove most of the remaining contaminants.  As a result, today’s incinerators have reduced toxic emissions by around 99.9% over the technology from a few decades ago.

Waste to Energy Incinerator

From Trash to Cash

This helps to turn the problem of waste disposal into an opportunity for cleaner energy.  Waste companies like Waste Management, Inc. are seeing potential treasure in your trash.  The company believes that the revenue potential of turning the trash they collect into energy is larger than what they earn in their primary business of collecting and hauling garbage. 

In 2011, $1.58 billion of the company’s $13.4 billion in revenue came from converting waste to energy and waste to other reusable products.  The company believes, however, that they have the opportunity to realize $40 billion from turning the waste they collect into energy and other products.   The company has invested in no fewer than 8 smaller companies that are working on various waste-to-energy technologies.

These technologies cover a wide range of waste to energy concepts.  For example, Fulcrum BioEnergy Inc. and Enerkem Inc. have technology that can be used to convert landfill waste to ethanol and biofuel.  These can be used to power Waste Management’s trucks, creating environmental and economic synergies.  Other companies are working on technology to convert waste plastics into a synthetic crude oil and other industrially useful chemicals.


The waste-to-energy industry does have its critics.  Forbes recently reported that China’s waste-to-energy facilities actually burn more coal than trash.  Coal is known to be a fuel source that contributes substantially to carbon emissions.  Some of the plants that serve China’s second tier cities burn as much as 70% coal.  This is particularly a problem because waste energy plants have more lax emission controls than coal plants.

In Texas, generating electricity from trash has been a tough sell since a high profile project in Austin went badly over 30 years ago.  Despite the state’s renewable energy mandate that required 30% of Texas electricity come from renewable sources, waste-to-energy is still slow to catch on.

Landfill Gases Used to Produce Electricity

Incineration is not the only way to convert waste to energy. Landfills create a substantial amount of green house gas.  As the organic components in landfills break down they release methane gas; a greenhouse gas that is many times more harmful than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere.  Methane-capturing systems can turn this problem into an energy opportunity by capturing the methane before it is allowed to escape into the environment and burning it to fuel electricity generators.

By. Devon Bass

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  • tanakorn jiraphasuksakul on October 18 2013 said:
    We have trash from different city in Thailand from 60-900 tons per day. We want to turn them to electric as our government is buying them with good adder rate prices. please, reply if you can provide the right technology that must be clean outcome.
  • John Scior on September 23 2014 said:
    I believe the Navy's newest Aircraft carrier utilizes a tecnology called plasma gasificaion. My home city Columbus, Ohio tried a tash burning power plant which failed because stuff kept exploding. I think newer technologies can make this work if you kep people informedand work co-operatively with them instead of being an elitist and imposing this on them.

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