Since 2000, traditional waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities consisting of mass burn and refuse-derived fuel (RDF) fired plants have shrunk in the U.S. At the start of the millennium, there were 97 operating facilities with an estimated total capacity of approximately 98,000 tons per day. Since that time, 22 facilities have closed with only one new one opening, leaving 76 operating WTE facilities throughout the country with a total capacity of approximately 94,600 tons per day. This downward trend will most likely continue—particularly for smaller facilities—as the initial terms of their power purchase or steam agreements expire.

The combination of competitive landfill tip fees and low wholesale energy pricing throughout much of the country contributed to this widespread contraction. The spread of the zero waste philosophy has also affected public opinion and the level of acceptance that these facilities receive. On top of this, the related “zero waste disposed” trend has gained a significant amount of traction lately, encouraging increased recycling and producer responsibility as ways to divert waste from disposal at landfills and WTE facilities.

Many states classify WTE as disposal and do not credit these facilities for helping divert waste from landfills. In places where this is the case, communities instead rely on things like recycling, anaerobic digestion and RDF production, foregoing the benefits that WTE can provide.

It is clear that unless the traditional WTE industry makes some technological changes or reinvents itself, the U.S. market will plateau or continue to decline. To best fulfill the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) waste management hierarchy, WTE must include technical solutions that provide maximum material recovery prior to energy recovery. We must recognize that many of the technologies on the market are complementary and best suited to managing different portions of the waste stream at different stages of recovery, contributing to the transition to a circular economy.

The marketplace already shows indications of this transition where waste processing and energy recovery technologies work together. At Sierra Biofuels, Storey County, Nevada, and at the Fiberight project in Ellsworth, Maine, municipal solid waste (MSW) will be processed, recyclables will be recovered, and the remaining residues will be converted to a fuel product. Future phase-two plans of the Sierra Biorefinery will produce a synthetic crude oil, and the soon-to-be-completed Fiberight facility will generate biogas and fuel pellets.

Granted, combining waste processing technologies in this way is not a new concept: In Europe, mechanical biological treatment facilities have been used for decades. These complex facilities incorporate solutions to maximize the remanufacturing of recyclables, recover material and energy from organics and produce RDF to be used for energy generation.

These facilities offer a vast improvement over the traditional linear approach to waste management. The development of concepts such as recovery parks, sustainable business parks or eco-industrial parks take this idea a step further. Incorporating and incubating a variety of local businesses and manufacturers, these parks implement circular economies and zero waste-to-landfill solutions to stimulate a value-added system. The primary goal of waste processing in these systems is material and energy recovery, not cherry-picking and disposal.

We ought to embrace the global trend of complex and multifaceted solutions where land disposal is no longer the default recourse for discarded items. Our approach in the U.S. has been that, unless something better comes along, landfilling will do.

We need to be proactive to reinvent the industry by including all the technologies that process MSW for advanced use, with land disposal reserved for materials from which no further value can be recovered or for which no recycling process has yet been developed. Taking this more nuanced approach to waste processing would not only help revive the stagnating WTE sector, but also lay the groundwork for a true zero waste future.