Some readers could help the U.S. and the world by manufacturing a different kind of furnace. Let me explain.

In the waste-to-energy (WTE) approach of burning garbage to make electricity, there is substantial need for improvement. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that last year America had 71 WTE plants in 20 states generating a total of 2.3 gigawatts (GW) of electricity. This amounted to only 0.4% of generation output while reducing the national load of 254 million tons (MT) of garbage annually, burning only 26 MT to generate power.

What is at issue here is that 90% of WTE generating capacity was developed and installed between 1980 and 1995, and most facilities are nearing end-of-life. Look at two examples. The Baltimore WTE plant has been converting 2,250 tons per day (TPD) of waste into 64 MW of electric power. Detroit has been burning 3,300 TPD since 1991 to make 68 MW while also providing district heating and cooling of over 140 buildings in the city’s downtown and midtown. Burning all this waste typically reduced volume by 87% because the biogenic (combustible) content of municipal solid waste runs about 59%.

It is also notable (and overlooked by “enviro-motionalists”) that putting this garbage into landfills produces methane, which is 28-36 times more potent than carbon dioxide and on balance produces much more undesirable gases. Then there are folks who want to shut down these WTE incinerators and instead eliminate or drastically reduce the generation of garbage. How are you going to do that?

It is true that WTE is “renewable” and does not compete with, but is a form of, recycling. WTE reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, and the ash is safe for landfill disposal. This all becomes an issue because China, once the largest buyer of U.S. “recyclables,” has banned the import of several dozen types of recyclables (25% of which is contaminated) and redefined what is acceptable material for recycling. 

China formerly processed a quarter of America’s waste, including 60% of paper waste. Philadelphia was selling recyclables for $67/ton in 2012. A year and a half ago, however, the city was paying $20/ton for recyclables removal, $40/ton by summer, and currently faces an asking price of $170/ton. A good part of the problem is educating the public about what is and is not recyclable and separating the two to keep the waste streams clean. A 2014 report shows that 82% of the city’s trash could have been recycled (or composted); only 28% was. You should also know that municipal waste is only 21% food waste on average.

The EPA has changed waste-management rules in many ways over the past 30 years, but older facilities struggle to comply with modern rules. Face it – garbage incinerators are some communities’ largest emitters of pollutants contributing to health issues (respiratory and cardiovascular). WTE sites can currently emit up to 205 ppm nitrogen oxide, and that is being reduced to 45 ppm in newer incinerators. However, that costs a city like Baltimore $1.6 million over three years ($400,000 annually) to comply. Besides, a WTE plant always smells bad regardless of whether they are cleaner than in years past. There are no technical barriers to making these improvements; there is just current instability in what direction the world is headed.

The purpose of this harangue about burning garbage is that there is a market need to make adjustments to incineration furnaces to meet common-sense rules. That is where some readers of this journal come in. Most greenies in our society have no clue how to address correction to the matters described here, but many readers do understand and can bring a lot to the party for the benefit of the nation. A different kind of furnace is one thing, but fitting it with better materials separation, exhaust-gas scrubbers, particulate removal, chemical constituent monitoring and even odor control are all must-have items on the menu.

I suggest that interested parties follow up and explore your role in this WTE area. It may prove to be a good business consideration.