Emily Folk


Humans and industries alike produce countless tons of waste every day. In turn, this waste negatively impacts the environment by releasing toxins and emissions. This garbage could serve as a resource instead of ending up in a trash pile. Turning waste into energy is a way to minimize the amount of refuse and contribute to a circular economy — a recycling method that eliminates waste.

The Need for a Circular Economy

Waste of any kind can harm the environment. Foods, plants, products and synthetic materials — it all adds up and creates a big problem for waste management workers. Some materials have harmful or toxic components that can seep into groundwater or nearby bodies of water, which will contribute to the estimated 1.8 billion people who will face water scarcity by 2025, unless we do something to protect Earth’s freshwater supply.

When things like plants and materials go to waste, they complete a linear economy. This economy is a straight line because it involves sourcing, producing and consuming materials that subsequently go to waste. Resources become trash instead of contributing to more useful causes.

A circular economy involves reusing, recycling and repairing all kinds of waste — from plants to water. That way, the line becomes a circle, and businesses, people and communities can reduce the amount of garbage they produce.

One example of a circular economy is wastewater treatment. Once water is used for some purpose, treatment plants can repurpose and purify it so it’s as good as new. Then, the wastewater can avoid infiltrating oceans, rivers or plots of land. It instead becomes a resource once again.

Integrating Waste to Energy

Water is an energy source of its own. Turning it back into power is key for a circular economy. However, recycling and reusing should expand beyond water to all energy forms — specifically electricity and heating. Thanks to waste-to-energy initiatives, this cycle is possible.

One instance of electricity production from waste is the biomass process. Farmers and agriculturists have been using this method for years — it’s an example that the world should follow. Creating biomass includes burning leftover plant and animal waste that will no longer have a use on the farm. Instead, burning it creates steam that powers a turbine that ultimately generates electricity.

Producing heat takes on a similar process — burning waste to create steam can then power a heating system. Burning waste is the root of a circular economy concerning waste-to-energy initiatives. Generating steam and power by simply getting rid of trash solves two problems.

First, it eliminates a large portion of waste. Throughout the farming season, workers will generate a lot of plant, animal and food waste. Using it prevents it from ending up in a trash pile. Second, this process works toward renewability. Waste will always exist — turning it into energy creates sustainability.

Challenges of Burning Waste for Power

While the idea of a circular waste-to-energy process can theoretically work, the initiative faces some challenges. For instance, those pushing for this progress will need to adapt it on a wide scale. While farmers already use methods like biomass creation, these will need to expand to more waste management facilities and workers. Burning all kinds of waste should become the norm.

Then, ensuring public health and safety during the burning process is the next challenge. Some waste, like plastics, have harmful materials that incineration may release. Properly dealing with those compounds and toxins so as not to release them into the atmosphere will protect workers and communities alike.

Finally, reducing the global carbon footprint during waste-to-energy processes is necessary. Biomass creation, for instance, can be a carbon-neutral method with the right approach. Every waste management facility that adopts these techniques must ensure the same positive outcomes.

A Circular Future

By focusing on these challenges and overcoming them, a waste-to-energy circular economy is possible. With new initiatives, energy workers can produce energy in the form of heat and electricity for farms, businesses and communities. Adopting this approach is one of the first steps to take while focusing on ways to benefit global societies and the environment.

Emily Folk covers topics in manufacturing and environmental technology. You can follow her blog, Conservation Folks, or her Twitter to get the latest updates.