Landfill and waste-to-energy plant

The U.S. generates almost a quarter of a billion tons of solid waste every year. After recycling, about 80 percent is sent to landfills, and 20 percent is burned in waste-to-energy facilities.

Nickolas Themelis of Columbia University has compared the pros and cons of waste-to-energy facilities to landfills.

Themelis: “All our studies have shown that waste-to-energy plants is much better.”

When trash breaks down in a landfill, it releases methane, a potent global warming gas. When it’s burned, the gas is converted to energy. When compared to landfills, the climate benefits are significant.

Themelis: “For every ton of solid waste that goes to a waste-to-energy plant instead of to a landfill, the difference is one ton of carbon dioxide less to the atmosphere.”

Opponents argue that waste-to-energy plants increase local air pollution. But Themelis says stricter clean air regulations have helped address this problem.

If all the solid waste in the world went to waste-to-energy plants, Themelis says it would reduce the amount of carbon humans emit by about three percent.

Themelis: “It’s not much. But we have to tackle whatever we can, wherever we can.”

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Image graphic: Created by David McCarthy.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...