Reuse and recycling can only go so far. The new phrase in the waste management industry is "zero waste", which means it does not generate any losses at all. Even after reuse and recycling, there is always something left. Many ecologists believe that turning this waste into Waste-to-Energy (WTT) as a practical step towards truly zero waste. Others see W.T.E. as nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, because the need for energy offers incentives to produce more waste.
There is no consensus, but a case study in South Africa by Trynos Gumbo urban planning learning in Romania Consilience illustrates in a W.T.E. is actually working in real life.
EThekwini is one of the largest urban areas in South Africa, including Durban and its suburbs. As is typical in the developing world, much of the solid waste stream is organic waste. By comparison, richer countries end up with much more metal and glass. However, the rganic waste of the Thekwini is often inadequately removed, creating an aesthetic and health hazard. The waste is left to rot, releasing the methane that changes the climate. The municipality motivated that if the gas would be released anyway, it could use it.
The theory was that gas created by decomposing organic material into a landfill could be captured and burned to produce electricity. (Some W.T.E. systems burn waste directly as a source of energy, although this produces more by-products). As Thekwini learned quickly, not every landfill leads to this process. The first waste landfill did not produce enough gas. The second one was filled with fine water and sand, plugging the extraction ducts. The third landfill produces a large amount of gas and can continue to do so even after the landfill closes as planned in 2022. A buffer area around the site helps maintain the habitat for wildlife.
A more recent W.T.E. the site to a much larger waste facility also descended to a rocky start – initially most of the gas was burned rather than extracted. Finally, the site produced enough electricity to reduce capacity at nearby fossil fuel-fired plants. The plant has helped reduce the many local problems; the air has become considerably cleaner, the inadequate waste of waste has fallen, and the plant hired local workers.
But there are some problems. Technology is costly, making it difficult to expand. There is still no response to what happens when the general waste level begins to decline. Gumbo also makes the argument that there is no waste carbon at all.
There are lots of large landfills that decompose and produce methane. For the moment, as Gumbo says, W.T.E. can use the gas that would have produced in any case. W.T.E. could work best as a transition technology until full take-up of renewable energy.
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By: Trynos Gumbo
Council, no. 12 (2014), pp. 46-62