Waste-to-Energy ranks #68 in Drawdown’s list of climate solutions, with the potential to cut carbon emissions by 1.1. gigatons over a 30-year period.
The three methods considered by the summary all dispose of trash via combustion, either through incineration, gasification, or pyrolysis, and for that reason, Drawdown says they are best viewed as a “bridge” strategy. Though waste-to-energy beats landfills on overall emissions and replaces fossil fuel-based electricity generation, there’s still a serious risk of releasing toxins into nearby communities in the process.
“In a sustainable world, waste would be reduced from the outset and composted, recycled, or reused,” Drawdown acknowledges. “The current reality, however, is that cities and land-scarce countries face a dilemma about what to do with their trash. Waste-to-energy is a transitional strategy for a world that wastes too much and needs to reduce its emissions.”
Waste-to-energy plants are already in widespread use across the United States, Japan, and Europe, and adoption is on the rise in China. The primary hurdle seems to be the steep cost of implementation: Drawdown estimates that at US$36 billion, much of it directed to pollution-reducing technologies aimed at preventing public health problems. For zones where land is limited—as it is for island nations—the investment may be worthwhile, especially if health impacts can be mitigated through newer, cleaner technologies like plasma-arc gasification.
“When appropriately strict pollution controls are in place, and when landfilling is a likely waste disposal alternative, waste-to-energy will nonetheless continue to provide an opportunity for societally beneficial greenhouse gas emissions reduction,” the summary states.
Installing 62.6 gigawatts of waste-to-energy plants would save roughly $20 billion by 2050, in addition to the beneficial climate outcomes, Drawdown concludes. “Waste-to-energy adoption will have the largest climate impact when it displaces both landfill disposal (particularly with low methane capture) and carbon-intensive power generation, i.e. coal, natural gas, and oil combustion.”