The U.S. could power 14 million homes and heat a further 10 million if it moved from landfill to waste to energy, according to a new study published by the American Chemistry Council (ACC).
Conducted by the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University, the study found that if all of the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) that is currently disposed in landfills each year in the U.S. were diverted to waste to energy facilities, it could generate enough electricity to meet nearly 12% of the U.S. total demand.
According to the study - 2014 Energy and Economic Value of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), including and Non-recycled Plastics (NRP), Currently Landfilled in the Fifty States – such a shift could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 123 million tons (111 million tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.
The research also found that the recycling of materials from MSW improved by 18.5 million tons (16.8 million tonnes), and the tonnage of materials processed by waste to energy facilities grew by 3.8 million tons (3.4 million tonnes) between 2008 and 2011.
Key statistics from the study are illustrated in a new infographic, ‘The Power of Waste.’
According to the authors, if the U.S. were to deploy district heating systems similar to countries such as Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway, the current waste stream could provide heat for close to 10 million additional homes.
The study is based on data obtained in Columbia University's 2014 Survey of Waste Management in the U.S., which looked at waste management statistics during 2011, and from MSW characterisation studies in several states.
"Modern technologies that convert waste into energy present a good opportunity to significantly reduce our reliance on landfills, lower our carbon footprint, and provide renewable energy to businesses and communities," commented Nickolas Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University.
"Currently, many developed nations are further along in embracing and expanding their use of energy recovery technologies as a vital part of their sustainable resource management systems. This presents an important opportunity for city planners and policy makers in the United States," he added.
Engineers at the Earth Engineering Center also calculated the quantity of non-recycled plastics - a subset of MSW that remains after plastics that can be economically recycled have been extracted - available for energy conversion.
The authors explained that teh latest study expands on an earlier EEC study (published in 2011 and based on data from 2008) by including (in addition to plastics in MSW) plastics that are not counted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as MSW but that are disposed in landfill, such as construction demolition debris and auto shredder residue.
According to the study, plastics represent 11% of the total U.S. waste stream. The total recovery rate for plastics, which includes both recycling and energy recovery, was said to have increased from 14.3% in 2008 to 16.6% in 2011.
The recycling rate for plastics was found to have increased by 21% between 2008 and 2011 to reach nearly 2.7 million tons (2.4 million tonnes).
However, according to the authors, if all non-recycled plastics in the U.S. were converted to energy through facilities that use modern plastics-to-oil technologies, they could produce nearly 6 billion gallons (22.7 billion litres) of gasoline.
"Every day, plastics significantly enhance our ability to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover more of our resources," commented Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for ACC. "These important findings show that, while we're making progress, we have a vital opportunity to recycle and recover more of these valuable materials."
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