Tee Cee's Tip for Monday, Aug. 29, 2022

·2 min read

Aug. 28—Dear Tee Cee: Why don't we just burn our trash? Can't trash be used as a fuel to generate energy? That way we don't have to worry about landfills getting full, and we can rely less on fossil fuel energy. I recently read an article about waste-to-energy plants in Scandinavia and I'm wondering why we haven't adopted similar technology. — Ava

Dear Ava: On the surface, waste-to-energy — the practice of burning garbage to generate electricity — might sound like a win-win for generating energy and finding a destination for trash other than the landfill. This particular "solution" is based on the premise that the problem we're solving is the need to make our trash "go away," but it's not.

The real problem is that, in order to make all our products and packaging that eventually become waste, we are extracting and destroying our limited natural resources like trees, minerals and fossil fuels. We can't afford to take and waste those resources — we have nearly eight billion people and untold numbers of other species relying on those resources to survive, and the extraction of resources, especially fossil fuels (including fracking), contributes significantly to our climate crisis.

Burning waste isn't preferable to landfilling; it's essentially doing the same thing — instead of recirculating and making the most of our valuable resources, the waste-to-energy process perpetuates the unsustainable pattern of "take, make, waste" and its associated problems.

Burning waste releases toxic emissions, and the energy generated is achieved at a relatively high price — waste-to-energy is the single most expensive way to manage waste. Once you invest in a waste-to-energy plant, you have to feed it enough material to make it financially viable, so you create an incentive to waste more and a disincentive to reduce waste and resource use. Waste-to-energy plants in the U.S. tend to be in historically marginalized communities, creating disproportionate negative impacts for those residents.

Real solutions — like reducing, reusing and recycling — focus on keeping fossil fuels and other resources "in the ground" to prevent the negative impacts of resource extraction on the climate, communities and our environment, and to keep already-extracted natural resources in circulation as long as possible. Resource conservation and avoiding greenhouse gas emissions are the real goals of zero waste, and "waste-to-energy," or incineration, run counter to those goals.

Instead of thinking of trash as something that needs to "go away," we need to recognize it as the feedstock for future products. Zero waste technologies, policies and management practices, as well as renewable forms of energy, are less expensive than incineration, environmentally just, support a circular economy and are proven to work. — Tee Cee

Have Zero Waste questions? recycle@ecocycle.org has the answers or call 303-444-6634.