From Trash to Treasure

An American Chemistry Council executive says mounting evidence shows the promise of energy recovery is too great to ignore.

September 7, 2012
Steve Russell

Even during a highly charged election season, one thing we can all agree on is the need for new sources of domestic energy.

My organization represents manufacturers of plastics, a family of raw materials used in cars, electronics, construction, medical devices and countless consumer goods and packages. Like those of you involved in developing energy from waste, we are extremely aware that energy-rich wastes, whether discarded from homes, businesses, construction or manufacturing, are all too often–and often unnecessarily–destined for landfills.

At the same time, we are encouraged by the growing list of forward-thinking communities in places like Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia and Texas that are tapping into this abundant resource by finding innovative ways to recover energy from waste. And in these communities, this locally sourced energy is helping to power homes, businesses, and transportation—all of which contribute to economic growth.

So how much potential energy from waste is out there? When it comes to efficient waste diversion, we all know that recycling comes first—but not all wastes can be economically recycled. That’s where energy recovery comes in. A recent study conducted by the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University found that if all of our nation’s non-recycled waste was converted into energy, it would generate enough energy to power more than 16 million homes annually, possibly more, depending on the technology.

Converting waste into energy isn’t a new idea—it’s being done now, although on a smaller than ideal scale. What has captured our attention is that researchers and entrepreneurs are close to commercializing a number of newer technologies that can supplement traditional conversion, delivering a range of energy outputs, from synthetic crude oil, to solid fuels, gases and chemical raw materials. Let’s take a closer look at one of these.

Unlocking the Potential
This summer, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the University of Texas at Austin jointly released a new study that reaffirmed the value of everyday waste as a clean, abundant, affordable source of domestic energy. Specifically, the study demonstrated that fuel engineered from non-recycled plastics and other materials could successfully power a cement kiln (cement kilns are notoriously energy-intensive) located in Texas. The research showed that solid pellets engineered from waste could serve as valuable fuel for not only cement kilns, but potentially for other energy intensive commercial and industrial operations.

Results Are In

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and University of Texas at Austin say their study reaffirms the value of everyday waste as a clean, abundant, affordable source of domestic energy.

The study, completed by Michael Webber, Ph.D, and his team of university researchers, demonstrated that fuel engineered from non-recycled plastics and other materials could successfully power a Texas cement kiln. The research showed that fuel engineered from waste could serve as valuable fuel for not only cement kilns but potentially for other energy-intensive commercial and industrial operations.

The energy-content fuel developed and used in the study surpassed that of some forms of coal, according to the researchers. Webber’s team also found that if 5 percent of unusable materials from recycling facilities were diverted from landfills to energy recovery, it would generate enough energy to power about 700,000 homes each year.

“In this case, one person’s trash truly is another person’s treasure. Americans send tons of waste to landfills each and every day, meaning that one of America’s most abundant and affordable sources of energy ends up buried in landfills,” says Cal Dooley, president and CEO of ACC. “It’s time we got smart and made energy recovery a central part of America’s energy strategy.”

According to the ACC, this most recent study represents one of many promising methods being developed to harness the energy from waste. The field of energy recovery is one of the major parts of ACC’s “From Chemistry to Energy” campaign.

ACC says it advocates for a comprehensive national energy strategy that maximizes all domestic energy resources, with a focus on robust and responsible production of domestic shale gas; improved residential, commercial and industrial energy efficiency; and expanded adoption of energy recovery programs. Each will help meet national energy security, economic and environmental goals while creating value for communities, says the ACC.

The report is available at

The University of Texas study also examined the benefits of energy recovery relative to a proven fuel source —coal—and found that the energy content of the fuel used in the study surpassed some forms of coal. Based on this finding, the researchers calculated that that if only five percent of unusable materials from recycling facilities (commonly referred to as “residue”) were diverted from landfills to produce energy, it would generate enough energy to power approximately 700,000 American homes annually. At the same time, the reductions in carbon emissions as compared to coal would be equivalent to removing one million cars from U.S. roads, and there would be significant reductions in sulfur emissions.

The University of Texas study was led by Dr. Michael E. Webber, who summarized its conclusions as follows: “The findings from our study demonstrate how engineered fuels can make a meaningful contribution to our nation’s strategy while reducing carbon and sulfur emissions compared to some forms of energy. The combination of environmental benefits, emerging science, and economic opportunity make recovering energy from waste an opportunity that we can’t afford to ignore.”

One reason municipal solid waste has such a high energy value is that it contains non-recycled plastics. Today, we’re able to recycle more plastics than ever before, and it’s important for all of us to recycle whatever we can. But when plastics become contaminated with food and other substances—making it difficult to economically recycle them—it’s still possible to recover the energy locked inside them. Non-recycled plastics make excellent feedstock for many forms of energy recovery.

In fact, the Columbia University study I mentioned earlier also looked at just the non-recycled plastics in municipal solid waste. This study found that if all of the non-recycled plastics discarded in the United States annually were diverted to modern waste-to-energy facilities, they could produce 52 million megawatt hours of electricity, or enough to power 5.2 million households per year. Alternatively, that same amount of non-recycled plastics could be transformed into enough fuel to run six million cars each year.

Already in the U.S., some regions have advanced their waste management operations to recycle all they can and recover valuable energy from what they cannot. In the U.S., states like Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Maine, Virginia, and Minnesota are combining recycling and energy recovery programs to convert large portions of waste into raw materials and energy resources.

In Connecticut, approximately 65 percent of the state’s used plastics were either recycled to create new products or recovered to create energy in 2008. And last year, Maryland passed legislation to designate waste-to-energy a “Tier 1 renewable energy resource” under the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

Countries like Austria, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands and others already have implemented aggressive energy recovery programs. Some of them have achieved really impressive success rates, diverting more than 90 percent of their municipal solid wastes from landfill through recycling and energy recovery.

Energy Strategy

So, how can the United States tap into more of this abundant source of domestic energy? We need policies that support increasing energy recovery as a complement to recycling and an important contributor of domestic energy. As an industry that understands the opportunities and possibilities that energy recovery can bring to communities across America, all of us can play a role in helping to educate public policymakers and encouraging them to enact sound policies.

Specifically, we need our federal lawmakers to recognize energy recovery as a critical component of a comprehensive domestic energy strategy and to make sure that forms of energy recovered from waste quality under definitions of “renewable energy” and “clean energy.” This would help support entrepreneurs and innovators who are working to grow this industry. We also need to change federal policies to define non-recycled plastics and other materials with energy value as “fuel” rather than “waste.”

At the state level, we need policy makers to clarify and simplify environmental permitting processes. Current processes are often slow and overly complex–in part because policymakers are unfamiliar with these relatively new technologies and unsure of how to categorize them. Of equal importance, we need policy makers to make sure that energy recovered from waste gets counted toward states’ mandated recycling and recovery rates.

Last fall, the U.S. Capitol began a partnership with a local waste-to-energy facility. Now, as much as 90 percent of the Capitol campus’ non-recycled solid waste is being processed at a local waste-to-energy facility to generate steam and electricity.

And this summer, leaders from both parties participated in an energy recovery forum on Capitol Hill–demonstrating that energy recovery is not a partisan issue. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and leaders from industry and academia, participating in an American Chemistry Council-hosted policy event, called for energy recovery to be recognized as an essential element of America’s long-term energy strategy.

It’s heartening that our political leadership understands that innovations in energy recovery technologies are producing a range of new fuels, products, and energy from resources that were once destined for landfills. And a growing body of evidence supports the energy, environmental and economic benefits of many forms of energy recovery.

We will continue to encourage more policy makers to become engaged in seeking out and supporting innovative energy solutions, and we look forward to working with the innovators in this sector to highlight the important but too-often unrecognized work that you do to tap this enormous resource.


The author is vice president, plastics division, American Chemistry Council. Studies mentioned in this article and other resources are available at

See the process

To watch a video showing how non-recycled plastics were used as a fuel source in this study, visit