Wasted Energy?

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by Casey Furlong


According to an EPA report (1), approximately 20% of all trash is managed using Waste to Energy (WtE). Most of us know this as incineration. The same report describes a considerable amount of that garbage consists of paper, plastic, metal and food scraps. Incinerating trash at a WtE plant as a method of municipal solid waste (MSW) management misses the opportunity to optimize resource recovery. It converts almost everything to heat and ash. Food consists mostly of water, so does it make sense to burn it?


Government officials in charge of improving recycling rates have a difficult task, especially in areas that have WtE plants, which require a constant supply of trash. However, officials may be surprised that a facility’s generating capacity won’t be significantly diminished if some or all of the food scraps are eliminated from the trash.

Moisture in food inversely correlates to heating value of MSW

A paper titled “The Effect of Food Waste Diversion on Waste Heating Value and WtE Capacity(2)” evaluated how heating potential of garbage changed as increments of food waste were removed prior to being disposed of in an incinerator. The authors found by removing just one quarter of the food scraps (7.3% of the total trash), the heating value per ton of incoming trash reduced by 3.4%. The affect is nearly linear with 50%, 75% and even the unlikely 100% diversion of food scraps from the landfill.


If a community was to redirect all of their food scraps to anaerobic digestion and composting, there would be almost 30% less trash being burned at the WtE facility, but only a 14% reduction in heating value. So, the overall amount of energy generated is less, because less garbage is incinerated. However, the amount of energy per ton of garbage is actually higher without food waste. The moisture content contributed by food inversely correlates to the heating value of general MSW.

Starving a landfill after starving an incinerator

In order to avoid an expensive service shut-down and power supply interruption before the incoming trash runs out, the authors suggest officials redirect certain waste streams from landfills to make up tonnage shortfalls. Starving a landfill after starving an incinerator — now that’s a conclusion I agree with.

(1)United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2015. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013. https://www.epa.gov/waste/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/2013_advncng_smm_rpt.pdf

(2)LoRe, Anthony M. and Harder, Susana Harder. 2012. “The Effect of Food Waste Diversion on Waste Heating Value and WtE Capacity.” 20th Annual North American Waste-to-Energy Conference 2012. https://proceedings.asmedigitalcollection.asme.org/proceeding.aspx?articleid=1716375

Casey Furlong is an Environmental Specialist for InSinkErator. With an extensive background in landfill engineering, Casey has designed, permitted, constructed and operated municipal solid waste landfills and large-scale food and landscape waste compost facilities. He is a certified landfill manager in Wisconsin and registered professional engineer in the states of WI, IL and IN.


The Varieties of “Beneficial Use”

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A certain person I know well claims that, for his psychological well-being, an occasional fine cigar is beneficial.  That determination is based on weighted values known only to him, and arguably with willful and sublime ignorance of the values held by, say, his wife.  

Spouses aside, individuals are pretty much free to deem whether something is beneficial to them or not and take it from there. But in public policy, others get to decide what is beneficial for the rest of us.  

This post is about the “beneficial reuse” of biosolids, which got me thinking about who declared their reuse to be so, and how, where, and when it’s considered a good thing. 

How biosolids come to be.  Wastewater treatment relies on both physical and biological processes to clean water. Primary clarifiers physically remove most of the organic materials simply through settling them out as primary sludge. The remaining soluble organic matter that passes on to the aeration tanks is biologically converted by bacteria. The bacteria multiply, so to keep their population in check, a portion of them is “wasted” out of the system to digesters along with primary sludge. Sludge digestion is either done aerobically or anaerobically (some sludges are incinerated), but under the EPA 503 Rule, the end product becomes “biosolids.” Read more