Fact sheet

Resource recovery operations today are much more advanced than the out-of-date and oft-criticized incinerators. The difference being that resource recovery facilities use high temperature to extract energy from the trash, whereas incinerators only attempt to reduce the volume of the trash. Resource recovery plants employ sophisticated emissions control systems, while incinerators usually employ only rudimentary pollution control equipment.

Test results from EFW facilities across North America demonstrate that emissions of dioxins are well below government regulations. The amount of dioxin emitted by a single modern mass-burn EFW plant is barely detectable by the most sophisticated scientific detection equipment, and is well below health-based air emissions standards. In 2002, the EPA estimated that the total annual dioxin emission rate from all EFW facilities in the U.S. was less than 12 grams compared to a toxic equivalent of 550 grams emitted by backyard barrel burning. Much larger quantities of dioxin are produced every day by both manmade sources, such as diesel trucks and wood burning stoves, and natural sources, such as forest fires
and volcanoes.

Resource recovery facilities, like all other workplaces, must meet tough health and safety standards. The industry takes tremendous pride in its implementation of programs that go beyond what is required by law.  For example, more than 45 US EFW plants have won distinguished awards for health and safety.

Resource recovery facilities successfully achieve continuous compliance with stringent environmental standards while generating thousands of megawatts of power – enough to meet the energy needs of millions of homes – while at the same time safely disposing of tens of millions of tons of garbage annually in North America alone.

EFW reduces waste volumes by 90%, resulting in an ash residue, which, once metals are removed, passes the most rigorous testing to ensure it is non-hazardous and safe for disposal and reuse. Field tests show that the levels of metals present in EFW ash leachate are close to drinking water standards and far lower than government toxicity criteria. This ash residue, which resembles wet cement, is then re-used as landfill roadbed material, daily and final landfill cover, road aggregate, asphalt-mixture, and even in the construction of artificial reefs and cement blocks.

Modern resource recovery facilities offer proven net-benefits in terms of greenhouse gases. Stringent emission control systems meet or exceed all regulatory requirements wherever they operate. For instance, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls EFW “a clean, reliable, renewable source of energy…with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.”

The Global Roundtable on Climate Change <http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/grocc/> (GROCC) unveiled a joint statement on February 20, 2007 identifying EFW as a means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the electric generating sector. The breadth of support for the GROCC position is evidenced by those that have signed the joint statement, including Dr. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center, as well as entities as diverse as General Electric, Florida Power and Light, and Environmental Defense.

Numerous studies on modern resource recovery operations in the U.S. and Europe have shown them to be environmentally sound, cost-effective, and safe for employees and local residents. Around the world, approximately 800 plants provide reliable, economical solid waste services to municipalities with no adverse health or environmental impacts.

Far from competing with recycling, resource recovery is part of an integrated approach to solid waste management that includes recycling as a core component. US communities with EFW plants recycle about 33% of their waste, whereas the national average is 28%. European data consistently shows that countries with high EFW implementation have a correspondingly higher level of recycling (while also generating less waste and producing more clean electricity than Canadians).

Eighty-nine US EFW plants prevent the release of forty million metric tons of greenhouse gases in the form of carbon dioxide equivalents that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere on an annual basis.  Annual reporting by IWSA to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Voluntary Reporting of Greenhouse Gases Program confirms that EFW also prevents the release into the atmosphere each year of nearly 24,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 2.6 million tons of volatile organic compounds.

Increased recycling does not significantly affect the calorific value of waste. Experience in the U.S. and Europe shows that the removal of low calorific value recyclables (such as yard waste, food waste, metal, and glass) and high calorific value material (such as paper and plastics) offset each other, causing the heating value of the residual waste to remain about the same. There is sufficient contaminated paper and other combustible material left in the waste after recycling to provide sufficient energy for recovery.

Even with aggressive +60% diversion programs in place, approximately 60% of the energy produced by an EFW plant is in fact renewable and according to IPCC protocol does not contribute to greenhouse gases.

The emissions of other substances from EFW plants are also well below health-based standards. Furthermore, the amount of toxic substances in the waste stream are significantly declining, as, for instance, the use of mercury in U.S. manufacturing processes dropped by almost 90% between 1980
and 2000.

Audit data from the municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area achieving +60% diversion through aggressive blue box and green bin programs indicates that the energy value of the residual waste has increased by 5% to 10% compared to the residual waste from municipalities with less aggressive diversion programs.

The excellent recycling record of communities can be attributed to several factors. Many facilities provide drop-off locations for recyclable materials, including computers, white goods, and other unwanted products. In addition, many resource recovery operations employ metal recovery programs on-site to remove ferrous from the ash. More facilities are beginning to implement non-ferrous metal recovery systems for recycling.

Resource recoveryplants track, record, and store up to 1,200 data points of information every second of the day to ensure that plant inputs/outputs are kept within clearly defined operating parameters established by government regulators.

While important to note that the cost of building a resource recovery operation is significant, it must be balanced with the future revenue potential over a 30 – 40 year timeframe. Post-recycled disposal, which is to say landfilling, is all cost.

Although unlikely, a reduction in the calorific value of the waste due to recycling would not result in the need to install additional boilers to an resource recovery facility to produce the same amount of energy. In fact, the opposite is true, as operators would simply process more waste per hour through the boiler to produce the same amount of energy.

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