We ought to be recycling and reusing far more and producing far less trash than we currently are but there will always be—even in a zero waste scenario—some residual waste left over. Why not put it to good use?
A plant in Germany incinerates “refuse-derived fuel” to generate electricity; the leftover product, which looks like shredded paper, fuels a local cement company’s boiler and is added to road construction material. Sweden has been generating heat and power from trash for years. After all recyclables, organics, e-wastes and hazardous materials are removed, the residual trash is incinerated, destroying many chemical pollutants. Additional pollution controls further reduce air quality impacts.
Here in Canada, many municipalities have been capturing methane from their landfills for decades; some simply burn off the methane (creates fewer emissions), while others use it to generate heat and electricity. Cirque du Soleil’s permanent big top in Montreal is serviced by a city-owned CHP plant that uses landfill gas to create heat and power.
Yellowknife uses wood waste to power a biomass district energy system that serves its community arena, pool and curling rink. The system provides almost all (95%) of the buildings’ heating needs. Oil consumption has been cut by more than 250,000 litres a year and, in 2013, annual savings were about $138,000 (although savings have likely decreased since then due to oil price fluctuations).
Most recently, a partnership between the City of Edmonton and Enerkem Inc. has led to municipal solid waste being converted into biofuels and biochemicals. Edmonton is already Canada’s hands-down leader in waste management—it diverts an average of 60% of residential waste from landfill—and the new biofuels facility is expected to drive that diversion rate to 90% by 2017.