What happens to household garbage that is not recycled?
More than half of household garbage in the U.S. is buried in landfills. However, some communities convert much of their garbage into energy that then is supplied to the electricity grid, powering homes and businesses. These communities have embraced energy recovery as a way to save landfill space. They also find that municipal waste is a smart alternative energy source.
The hydrocarbons that make up most plastic products are a powerful source of energy. For example, common plastic foodservice products supply more than 16,000 BTUs (similar to the big burner on a stove) per pound in a “waste-to-energy” facility. That’s twice as much energy per pound as coal. Rather than burying this stored energy, communities can recapture it.
In a modern energy recovery facility, high-BTU plastics actually can help other, lower-BTU materials combust more completely, which generally means cleaner emissions and less ash for disposal. A 2009 study by the U.S. E.P.A. and North Carolina State University scientists concluded that sending garbage to waste-to-energy facilities reduces greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution compared to landfilling.
There are approximately 400 of these recovery facilities throughout Europe with many more planned. Yet there are only 87 such facilities in the U.S., with no new ones planned or being built.
One of the largest energy recovery facilities in the country is in Lorton, Virginia. This facility converts non-recycled garbage from residents of Washington, D.C. — 200,000 tons a year — into alternative energy. The facility transforms discarded materials into steam that turns turbines to supply $20 million of electricity per year to the local utility company. Non-recycled plastics play a key role in helping other materials burn more readily and cleanly in this and other facilities.