As urban populations continue to grow, some cities are struggling to cope. Many are turning to new technologies for cost-effective solutions to clean up waste. Cities that address waste problems immediately have the best chance to avoid severe long-term consequences, says Ricardo Cepeda-Márquez, solid waste director for C40 Cities, a global network of cities committed to tackling climate change.

Copenhagen, Denmark, recently opened its innovative waste-to-energy power plant, known as Copenhill or Amager Bakke, which is topped with an artificial ski slope. The plant, which burns waste instead of fossil fuels, is capable of converting 450,000 tons of trash into energy annually, delivering electricity to 30,000 households and heating to 72,000. Though it still produces CO2 emissions from burning, the city plans to install a system to capture the carbon released by the incineration process, and then store the carbon or find a commercial use for it. By tapping an otherwise unused resource, it will also help the city move away from its dependence on fossil fuels.

“Instead of placing waste outside in a big landfill, we use the waste to produce energy for heating and electricity in the most efficient way currently available,” the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen Frank Jensen told CNN Business in an email.

“Efficient waste incineration supplies district heating for 99% of the buildings in Copenhagen, so we will eliminate the pollution from coal, oil and petroleum,” he adds, helping the capital meet its goal to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025.

Cities such as Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Shenzhen in China, and Hanoi in Vietnam are experimenting with similar waste-to-energy plants. But Cepeda-Márquez warns that this technology has its limits. A city needs solid infrastructure and a strong waste collection system already in place before it can reap the benefits of one of these plants. “Many global south cities, with badly managed waste management systems, expect that with the ideal incinerator or waste-to-energy facility all of their problems will go away,” he says. “But if you have a broken system, there is no technology that is going to fix it.”

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