The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (2022)

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (1)

Waste-to-energy (WtE), also known as energy-from-waste, is the process where energy (typically heat and electricity) is generated using waste as a fuel source. This is often done through direct combustion using waste incinerators – i.e. burning the waste – or the production of a combustible fuel from a gas such as methane. The latter method is less common and requires processes such as gasificationoranaerobic digestion.

Incineration is the most common type of waste-to-energy in the US and remains a relatively primitive energy generation technology. Waste is burned, this boils water which turns to steam, spinning turbines which create electricity. In addition, the heat from the actual combustion can be used.

What’s the problem withwaste-to-energy?

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (2)

There are two traditional paths for un-diverted waste: landfill and incinerator. Neither is ideal, however, during the 19th century there was an attempt to improve the situation. Engineers in Europe saw an opportunity for energy recovery in a range of waste streams, and rather than simply burning trash to dispose of it, it was determined the heat from waste incineration could be used to power turbines—and so, waste-to-energy was born.

However, more than a hundred years later, those same primitive methods are still at the core of our waste disposal, and as people seek cleaner energy and more sustainable waste management, the problems of waste-to-energy have started to outweigh the benefits.

(Video) LANDFILL VS WASTE-TO-ENERGY // pros and cons of burning trash

Waste-to-energypros and cons

As with any waste management process, there are pros and cons to WtE. Below are some of the main waste-to-energy advantages and disadvantages:


Waste-to-energy is used for a reason and compared to traditional waste management methods it certainly has some benefits, including the use of an otherwise wasted resource, a reduction in landfilling, and the opportunity for resource recovery.

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (3)

Waste-to-energy is better than traditional incineration

Waste-to-energy is often promoted as “clean energy” when compared to wasteful incineration practices of the previous decades. In this regard, it is utilizing energy that would otherwise be wasted, while not technically increasing the amount of waste burned. That said, this argument only holds if incineration is the only option, whereas most responsible waste management plans are now looking toward less damaging, more circular solutions that contribute less to climate change.

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (4)


Landfillsare the last resort when it comes towaste management, causing numerous issues such as the production ofgreenhouse gases, the usage of large pieces of land, the potential forpollutantsto seep into the ground and groundwater, and more. Unfortunately, according to theEnvironmental Protection Agencyfiguresfrom 2018, around 146 million tons ofMunicipal Solid Waste– that’s around 50% of allMSW– was sent tolandfill.

(Video) Waste To Energy vs Zero Waste Movement? | (Pros & Cons)

Waste-to-energy processes at specialist incineration plants can greatly reduce the volume of waste that is landfilled. According to the US Energy Information Administration,WtEplants are able to reduce the volume of waste by about 87%, burning 2,000 pounds of garbage to ash weighing between 300 and 600 pounds. That said, this benefit is still based on the assumption that such large quantities of waste will continue to be produced—or continue to be allowed to be produced.

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (5)

Resource recovery

Another benefit of waste-to-energy over landfilling is the opportunity to recover valuable resources such as metals post-incineration. They can then be sent for recycling and kept in the economy. This is even true of mixed materials, which are notoriously hard torecycle. Incineration burns away materials such as plastics leaving the metals behind, which can be considered better than landfills where recyclable materials are simply buried.


The disadvantages of waste-to-energy are numerous and have become more apparent in recent years. They include the pollution and particulates it generates, the destruction of useful materials, and the potential to disincentivize more sustainable waste management solutions and renewable energy sources.

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (6)

High CO2 emissions

Almost all the carbon content in the waste that is burned for WtE is emitted as carbon dioxide, which is one of the most notable greenhouse gases. That said if the waste-fuel is biomass – i.e. of natural origins, such as food waste, paper and paper board, wood, natural cloths like cotton – then the CO2 it contains was originally drawn from the atmosphere. However, plastics and other oil-based products, which are also burned in WtE, are equivalent to any other fossil fuel and emit damaging greenhouse gas emissions.

(Video) What are the advantages of converting waste-to-energy?

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (7)

Potential to destroy recoverable materials

While waste-to-energy gives the opportunity to recover some resources, such as metals, it tends to destroy far more. In the US, incineration for WtE is most commonly completed through a process called “mass-burn”, whereby MSW is burned wholesale rather than being separated. In turn, the WtE process can destroy resources that could otherwise have been recovered, including minerals, wood, plastics, and more. This is especially true if there is not a rigid separation process formunicipal solid wasteahead ofincineration.

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (8)

WtEcould disincentivize recycling

Another of thewaste-to-energycons is the potential for it to disincentivize recycling or other more sustainablewaste managementmethods. If people, organizations, or governments believe thatwaste-to-energyis a viable sustainable energy source andwaste managementtechnique, they are less likely to engage with or invest inmore impactful solutions, such as reduction,reuse, or recycling. This can already be seen with the classification of manyWtEpower plantsas “renewable energy”.

It fuels an unregulated waste trade

Today, many developed countries send their waste todeveloping countriesfor processing, often as part of a broaderwaste managementplan that claims to improverecycling rates. In some cases, waste is recycled, but often it is simply incinerated or used inwaste-to-energyfacilities. China’sNational Sword Policyhighlighted the scale of this practice.

Unfortunately, while Western countries will claim this practice as part of their recycling targets, the unregulated nature of this trade often means improper disposal, withWtEa major factor. In fact, it has even been shown thathazardous wastesnot meant forincinerationare commonly shipped abroad where they are burned before being landfilled.

(Video) waste to energy incineration pros and cons


Incineration is not the only waste-to-energy method, and there is an increasing number of techniques that are being implemented to make waste processing more sustainable. Some of the other notable WtE methods include:

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (9)


While as a process, gasification has been used for centuries, it has only been applied to waste in a serious way in the past few decades. It works by processing biomass at extremely high temperatures without combustion, which produces combustible natural gas – also called syngas. This gas is then used as a fuel source.

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (10)

Fermentation and distillation

Biomasscan be fermented and distilled to create ethanol. This can then be used as an alternative fuel for engines or other applications. As with otherWtEmethods, this can only be used fororganic wasteand other similarwaste streams.

The Pros and Cons of Waste-to-Energy | RTS (11)Anaerobic digestion

This is a process in which microorganisms break downbiomassin an oxygen-free environment. It produces biogas high inmethanewhich can then be used as a fuel source to produce electricity and other applications.

(Video) Advantages and Disadvantages of Waste Incineration | WELS (Waterpedia Environmental Learning Series)

So, arewaste-to-energyplantsgood?

What seems clear is that waste-to-energy’s benefits only exist when comparing it with traditional landfilling or incineration as a waste management system. However, when viewed on its own, the problems are so fundamental that it’s hard to consider it as a viable part of any green, circular economy. At a time when businesses, municipalities, cities, and countries are looking towards zero waste, there is no place for waste-to-energy. The alternatives do tackle some of the issues of incineration-based WtE and could be folded into broader sustainable waste management plans, but even these fall short of reducing, reusing, and recycling materials.

To learn more aboutwaste managementtechniques and how your business can take a greener path,talk to one of our TRUE advisors today. To stay up to date with the latest ways to optimize your business’swaste management,subscribe to the RTS blog now.

Contact one of our TRUE Advisors today.


What are the benefits of Waste-to-Energy? ›

Waste-to-Energy (or energy-from-waste) facilities provide a safe, technologically advanced means of waste disposal that reduces greenhouse gases, generates clean energy and recycles metal. Waste-to-Energy (WTE) is widely recognized as a technology that can help mitigate climate change.

What are the disadvantages of waste? ›

Here are 10 negative effects of the improper removal and disposal of waste.
  • Soil contamination. Soil contamination is the No. ...
  • Air contamination. ...
  • Water contamination. ...
  • Bad impact on human health. ...
  • Impact on animals and marine life. ...
  • Disease-carrying pests. ...
  • Adversely affect the local economy. ...
  • Missed recycling opportunities.

Is waste to energy effective? ›

Waste to energy is one of the most robust and effective alternative energy options to reduce CO2 emissions and replace fossil fuels. Approximately 2/3 of household waste is categorized as biomass. Therefore, we can recover 2/3 as CO2-neutral energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Is waste to energy sustainable? ›

Waste-to-Energy is the sustainable alternative to landfills for waste disposal. Modern Waste-to-Energy(opens in a new tab) facilities divert waste from landfills to generate energy from the combustion of municipal solid waste.

What are the cons of waste to energy? ›

The disadvantages of waste-to-energy are numerous and have become more apparent in recent years. They include the pollution and particulates it generates, the destruction of useful materials, and the potential to disincentivize more sustainable waste management solutions and renewable energy sources.

What are the 5 benefits of waste management? ›

Business benefits of managing waste effectively
  • Saving money on what you buy. Using raw materials, packaging and equipment more efficiently means you won't have to buy as much.
  • Cutting your waste disposal costs. ...
  • Meeting your environmental obligations. ...
  • Finding new sources of revenue.

Is waste to energy better than landfill? ›

Relative to landfilling, Waste-to-Energy facilities reduce greenhouse gas emissions from managing solid waste. Covanta's facilities annually divert more than 22 million tons of greenhouse gases—the carbon equivalent of removing more than 4. 3 million cars from the road every year.

What are 5 problems caused by waste? ›

1.3. Problems caused by mismanagement of waste
  • Air emissions. Air emissions are mainly produced by fumes from the burning of waste and also landfill gases. ...
  • Health impact. ...
  • Ecosystem services in danger. ...
  • Soil contamination. ...
  • Surface and groundwater. ...
  • Marine pollution. ...
  • Odour and littering. ...
  • Pests.

What are disadvantages and advantages? ›

As nouns, the difference between disadvantage and advantage is that disadvantage is a weakness or undesirable characteristic; a con while the advantage is any condition, circumstance, opportunity, or means, particularly favorable to success, or any desired end.

Do waste to energy plants pollute? ›

Pollution. Waste-to-energy plants cause less air pollution than coal plants, but more than natural gas plants. At the same time, it is carbon-negative: processing waste into fuel releases considerably less carbon and methane into the air than having waste decay away in landfills or the lake.

What are the 5 disadvantages of recycling? ›

List of Disadvantages of Recycling
  • More pollution and energy consumption. ...
  • Result in pollutants. ...
  • Increased processing cost and low-quality jobs. ...
  • Require stricter and more stringent implementation. ...
  • Good products are not guaranteed. ...
  • Generally ineffective.

What are 3 positive impacts of recycling? ›

Q: What are the environmental benefits of recycling? A: It conserves energy, reduces air and water pollution, reduces greenhouse gases, and conserves natural resources. Stanford recycled, composted, and otherwise source reduced 62% of its waste and reduced landfill by 35%.

Why is energy waste bad for the environment? ›

Fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—do substantially more harm than renewable energy sources by most measures, including air and water pollution, damage to public health, wildlife and habitat loss, water use, land use, and global warming emissions.

Is waste to energy cheap? ›

The cost of installing a gasification waste to energy plant is – Rs. 15-18 crores/ MW (cost of electricity if sold at Rs. 12-14/ kWh. The plants are not feasible in themselves as cost of electricity from other power sources range between Rs 2.5-10/kWh (coal to solar).

Is waste to energy economical? ›

Waste to energy is one of the circular economy solutions that can have economic, social, and environmental co-benefits through efficient use of natural resources, reduced emissions, job creation, and fostering innovation.

Why is waste to energy Controversial? ›

Waste-to-energy plants, which produce most of their power by incinerating trash, make up only about half a percent of the electricity generation in the U.S. But the plants have long aroused considerable opposition from environmentalists and local residents who decry the facilities as polluters, eyesores, and generators ...

What country uses waste to energy? ›

Turning trash into energy: Sweden's recycling strategy

By turning trash into energy, Sweden provides heating to over 1 million households.

Are waste to energy plants renewable? ›

WTE systems provide a highly valued source of renewable energy, but perhaps the greatest benefit of WTE today comes from its ability to convert waste into ash, reducing by up to 90 percent the volume of waste going to landfills.

Why is Best of waste important? ›

This reduces greenhouse gases, saves energy and creates jobs. By reducing the amount of waste you create, you help prevent pollution and protect the environment. You also limit the amount of waste going to landfill, preserve natural resources and save money.

How is waste useful? ›

The beneficial use of solid waste keeps materials out of landfills and reduces the amount of raw materials used in construction and other industries. It can also generate profits for participating organizations and reduce their disposal costs.

What are the disadvantages of reducing waste? ›

Reducing solid waste can lead to as many potential unintended consequences as managing it. Good can come from landfills in the form of "green" energy, and bad can come from recycling in the form of increased costs and pollution.

How much does it cost to convert Waste-to-Energy? ›

The fees at most WTE plants range from $80 to $100 per ton, compared to around $55 per ton of MSW at landfills.

What is the biggest problem with waste? ›

Poor waste management contributes to climate change and air pollution, and directly affects many ecosystems and species. Landfills, considered the last resort in the waste hierarchy, release methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

How does waste affect the economy? ›

Waste pollution not only affects the health of our communities, living creatures and ecosystems, it also has a real and very significant economic impact. This includes lower land values, reduced tourism, wasted resources and clean-up costs.

Why is waste a big problem? ›

Pollution of soil: Waste can leak hazardous chemicals into the soil and from there into our food. Air pollution: The burning of waste at landfills release toxic substances into the air, including extremely poisoning dioxin. Pollution of oceans: 13 million tonnes of plastic end up in the world's oceans each year.

What is the the disadvantage? ›

: loss or damage especially to reputation, credit, or finances : detriment. the deal worked to their disadvantage. : an unfavorable, inferior, or prejudicial condition. we were at a disadvantage. : a quality or circumstance that makes achievement unusually difficult : handicap.

What are 4 pros and 4 cons of being an entrepreneur? ›

The pros and cons of being an entrepreneur
  • Pros.
  • Freedom. There's no denying that one of the best parts of being an entrepreneur is the complete freedom you have to do your own thing. ...
  • Flexibility. And with all that extra responsibility comes flexibility. ...
  • Control. ...
  • Profits. ...
  • Cons.
  • Responsibility. ...
  • Risk.
17 Jul 2018

Does waste-to-energy emit CO2? ›

Each tonne of MSW incinerated typically releases between 0.7 and 1.7 tonnes of CO2 [3]. This includes emissions of both fossil CO2 (e.g. from burning plastics) and biogenic CO2 (e.g. from burning wood, paper and food).

Do waste-to-energy plants smell? ›

Some of that waste could potentially be used at the Heartland digester in the future. Anaerobic digestion “can certainly produce odor, but when properly managed, it's no smellier than landfilling,” Fort Collins environmental planner Honore Depew said.

What are 10 benefits of recycling? ›

Why Is Recycling Important? 10 Benefits of Recycling
  • Protects Ecosystems and Wildlife. ...
  • Conserves Our Natural Resources. ...
  • Saves Energy. ...
  • Reduces the Need to Harvest New Materials. ...
  • Reduces Carbon Emissions. ...
  • Saves Money. ...
  • Brings People Together. ...
  • Educates People About the Importance of Protecting the Environment.

What are 3 issues with recycling? ›

Challenges in Recycling
  • Poor Recycling Quality Due to Lack of Education. Most people know that recycling is a good habit for the environment, but are often unsure of what goes into the recycling bin. ...
  • Safety for Workers. ...
  • Expensive or Inadequate Services. ...
  • Low Market Demand for Recycled Materials. ...
  • Is Recycling Worth it?
4 Feb 2022

What are the top 5 impacts of recycling? ›

The Top 5 Impacts of Recycling
  • Our Trash Gets Repurposed for Reuse.
  • Reduced Consumption of Raw Materials.
  • Prevents Air and Water Pollution.
  • Less Waste for Landfills and Incinerators.
  • Creates Jobs for Towns and Cities.

What are 10 disadvantages of plastic? ›

Disadvantages of plastics
  • Typically, plastics are created from non-renewable resources. ...
  • The pollution in the world's waters is predominantly plastic. ...
  • Multiple economic costs could result from plastic pollution. ...
  • Unable to infinitely recycle plastic products. ...
  • In order to recycle goods, we must use energy to clean plastic.

What is the difference between pros and cons? ›

What is a pros and cons list? Pros and cons list is a simple but powerful decision-making tool used to help understand both sides of an argument. Pros are listed as arguments in favor of making a particular decision or action. Cons are arguments against it.

What are the 7 advantages of recycling? ›

7 benefits of recycling
  • Conserving natural resources. ...
  • Protecting ecosystems and wildlife. ...
  • Reducing demand for raw materials. ...
  • Saving energy. ...
  • Cutting climate-changing carbon emissions. ...
  • Cheaper than waste collection and disposal. ...
  • Tackles youth unemployment.
29 Mar 2018

Does recycling save money? ›

Recycling saves money. It's that simple. It's in the best interest of all businesses to establish recycling programs. Recycling sets a good example for employees and surrounding businesses and ultimately reduces an organization's footprint.

Is waste recycling beneficial to the environment? ›

Recycling helps protect the environment

It not only saves energy but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which helps to tackle climate change.

What are the major advantages of reducing energy waste? ›

Benefits of Energy Efficiency

Environmental: Increased efficiency can lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other pollutants, as well as decrease water use. Economic: Improving energy efficiency can lower individual utility bills, create jobs, and help stabilize electricity prices and volatility.

What is the 7 advantage of recycling? ›

Q: What are the environmental benefits of recycling? A: It conserves energy, reduces air and water pollution, reduces greenhouse gases, and conserves natural resources. Stanford recycled, composted, and otherwise source reduced 62% of its waste and reduced landfill by 35%.

What are the 3 benefits of waste segregation? ›

There are a number of important reasons that we encourage waste segregation; legal obligations, cost savings and protection of human health and the environment.

What are 10 advantages of renewable energy? ›

The 10 Key Advantages of Renewable energy
  • Clean, Safe & Efficient. ...
  • Numerous methods for creating renewable power. ...
  • Gives your country energy independence. ...
  • Provides jobs for your local community. ...
  • Doesn't rely on the main power grid. ...
  • Stable costs. ...
  • Can enjoy the summer and winter whilst indoors. ...
  • Save & make money.
25 Jul 2018


1. How a waste-to-energy plant works
2. Waste-to-Energy: proces explanation (2007)
(AEB Amsterdam Grondstoffen- en energiebedrijf)
3. Waste to energy or landfill?
(resource sustainability)
4. Waste To Energy Plant Process - McKay Bay Waste-to-Energy Facility
(City of Tampa)
5. Waste to Energy Project (2016)
(Tommy Pierce)
6. Waste to energy: Turning waste into power with Siemens technology

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