Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
and Supporting a Circular Economy

When Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is sent to a landfill, it is buried in the ground where it decomposes and releases potent greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Once a landfill is full, it is capped to limit water from seeping in and carrying contaminants into the environment. However, the decomposition of waste in the landfill and the generation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continues.

Even for communities with ample space to commit to landfills, sending Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) to landfills is environmentally unsustainable because of the greenhouse gas emissions. Some landfills are equipped with methane recovery systems. However, even these landfills still generate significant greenhouse gas emissions since often only a fraction of the gas is collected and used to produce electricity.

To combat greenhouse gas emissions, we must develop strategies to divert MSW from landfills and limit the associated environmental impact. Waste-to-Energy (WtE) is currently an underutilized waste management option that, along with recycling and composting efforts, could help significantly reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills. WtE uses MSW to generate clean, renewable electricity, which is then sold to utilities and distributed to residential and commercial consumers.

Greenhouse Gas Quick Facts

  • The United States produced 262.4 million tons of MSW in 2015
  • Every ton of MSW processed at a WtE facility prevents approximately one ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from entering the atmosphere, or the equivalent of 2,445 miles driven by a typical passenger vehicle
  • Landfills are the third largest contributor of methane emissions from human activities, accounting for 16.4 percent of total emissions in 2017, or the equivalent of over 22.8 million passenger vehicles driven for one year
  • GHG emissions from landfills are two to six times higher than those generated at WtE facilities
  • WtE produces 10 times more electricity than landfill gas-to-energy systems

Source: U.S. EPA

Reducing Emissions with Waste to Energy

MSW processed at a WtE facility doesn’t decompose to generate methane, as it would at a landfill. Instead, the energy content of the waste is captured to produce electricity. The electricity generated by the WtE facility further offsets greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the consumption of non-renewable fuel sources like coal.

WtE facilities also increase recycling rates, further contributing to sustainable environmental practices. Metals that would have been sent to landfill are recycled at the WtE facility, and the GHG emissions that would have been generated in mining new metals are avoided.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions with WtE is a straightforward process that doesn’t require any additional waste sorting or preparation prior to collection.

  1. MSW generated by homes and businesses is collected for delivery to the WtE facility.
  2. MSW is diverted from the landfill and instead transported to the WtE facility.
  3. MSW is processed by the WtE facility
  4. Metals are recovered and recycled.
  5. Electricity generated by the WtE process is distributed to consumers.

This process helps support a circular economy.