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Study: Burning plastics could recover energy now lost in landfills

By: Jim Johnson

July 9, 2014

Burning all of the trash now sent to U.S. landfills, plastics included, could create enough energy to power 14 million homes, according to a new study.

That also means diverting the waste sent to landfills each year to waste-to-energy power plants would power about 12 percent of the country’s total homes, the study from the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University.

The study, sponsored by the American Chemistry Council, indicates plastics represent about 11 percent of the waste stream, the study reports.

And the total recovery rate for plastics was about 16.6 percent, a figure that includes both recycling and energy recovery, in 2011. That’s one in every six pounds.

 “These important findings show that, while we’re making progress, we have a vital opportunity to recycle and recover more of these valuable materials,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for ACC, in a statement.

Burning waste is not the only way to extract energy. And the study also said that nearly 6 billion gallons of gasoline could be created if all non-recycled plastics were diverted and converted through modern plastics-to-oil technologies.

The study’s estimate of 247 million tons of waste placed in landfills in 2011 is 112.7 million tons higher than an estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because the study includes waste streams the EPA does not include in its research, including construction and demolition debris, packaging waste from imported goods, and municipal wastewater sludge, for example, according to the study.

The study also indicated the recycling rate for plastics increased by 21 percent from 2008 to 2011 to nearly 2.7 million tons.

The new study is called “2014 Energy and Economic Value of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), including and Non-recycled Plastics (NRP), Currently Landfilled in the Fifty States.”