Reuse and recycling can only go so far. The exciting new expression in the waste management industry is "no waste", which means no waste production at all. Even after reuse and recycling, something is always left. Many environmentalists are considering turning that waste into energy that can be used (Waste-to-Energy, or W.T.E.) as one practical step towards real zero waste. Others see W.T.E. like no more than a Ponzi scheme, as the need for energy gives incentives to produce more waste.
There is no consensus, but a South African case study by Trynos Gumbo's urban planning scholar Consilience shows one way W.T.E. actually working in real life.
eThekwini Municipality is one of the largest urban areas of South Africa, including Durban and suburbs. As a characteristic in the developing world, much solid waste stream contains organic waste. As a comparison, richer countries end with much more of metal and glass. However, rocky waste at eThekwini is often disposed of inappropriate, creating an esthetic and health hazard. The waste is left to rotate, releasing methane that is changing climate. The borough reasoned if the gas was released anyway, they might also use it.
The theory was that gas generated by decomposing organic material in landfill could be caught burns for electricity generation. (Some W.T.E. schemes burn the waste directly as an energy source, although this produces more byproducts). As eThekwini learned quickly, not all landfill is favorable to this process. The first landfill sought did not produce enough gas. The second was still filling in fine water and sand, by earing the extraction pipes. The third landfill, however, produces enough gas, and can continue to do so even after the landfill site is closed as anticipated in 2022. A cushion zone around the site is help maintain habitat for wildlife.
W.T.E. More recently The site in much larger landfill also started to rock, starting, most of the gas was burned rather than pulling. Ultimately, the site produced enough electricity to reduce capacity in adjacent fossil fuel related plants. It helped the plant to facilitate a number of local problems; Air clearly became clear, poor disposition decreased, and the works employed by local workers.
However, there are some problems. The technology is expensive, making it difficult to scale up. There is still no answer to what happens when waste levels begin to decline. Gumbo also makes the suspicious allegation that there is no carbon at all.
Many large landfill sites exist, decompose and produce methane. For the time, as Gumbo says, W.T.E. can use gas that would be produced anyway. W.T.E. Perhaps working best as transitional technology until full renewable energy takes over.
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Gan: Trunos Gumbo
Consilience, No. 12 (2014), pp. 46-62