One of the more pressing challenges that face cities today is an effective waste management program. A majority of cities truck waste out of the city to a distant landfill, often at great expense. Americans generate an average of 4.3 pounds of waste per day. In 2015, the United States alone generated more than 258 million tons of municipal solid waste, with only 34.6% being recycled. 136 million tons were sent to landfill, which is the second-largest source of human-related methane gas emissions. This is a growing problem because we are generating more waste and have fewer places to go with it. Landfill prices are rising as land becomes more scare, driving up the costs of waste management for municipalities that are already struggling with infrastructure projects.
One option that is very attractive is Waste to Energy (WTE), which extracts the energy from waste by incinerating it. This combustion powers a generator the same way fossil fuels would. However, the process captures gases so that it does not add any pollution or greenhouse gases. Incineration can reduce the total volume of trash by 90% or more. It also prevents one ton of carbon dioxide release for every ton of waste burned. Additionally, metals are extracted, which can be recycled for an additional revenue stream.
There are several reasons why cities may not pursue this solution, including resistance from residents (not in my backyard, or NIMBY), but the main concern might be cost. Like many renewable energy projects there are large capital costs, but significant returns over the life cycle of the project. Municipal bonds can pay for the project over a 25-year period, while the WTE plant could last more than 40 years. Once the project has been paid off the municipality could save millions by reducing the tipping fee per ton of waste, generating electricity, and saving on trucking it out. Once additional costs associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions are calculated in, the long-term investment can become more attractive. GHG emissions are reduced by reducing the distance trucks need to travel to deposit the waste, the reduction of energy produced by fossil fuel plants, and the significant reduction of methane being emitted by landfill.
Finally, these plants are not known for their aesthesis, making them even more difficult to place in neighborhoods. Not in my backyard (NIMBY) is a genuine problem for WTE. However, in Copenhagen, the Copenhill / Amager Bakke plant solves one additional problem; aesthetics. The plant not only is used to incinerate 400,000 tons of waste per year to provide 50,000 households with electricity and 120,000 households with district heating, but it was designed as a green space with a ski slope.