The need for more significant investment in U.S. solid waste infrastructure is a topic of national conversation. Both private- and public-sector entities are weighing in on the financial investment needed to mend our domestic recycling markets and develop better-localized systems for reusing waste. The federal government has recently proposed solid waste-related bills that include programs that will allocate taxpayer funding to help communities invest in zero waste to landfill (ZWL) infrastructure; however, the federal government and private industry alike are still weighing the real economic investment needed to build domestic solid waste infrastructure with the processing capabilities to responsibly handle all U.S. solid waste.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generated 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2017—52 percent, or 139 million tons, of which were landfilled. Even though sustainable waste management practices are widely accepted by municipalities and private industries, the current MSW infrastructure in the U.S. does not have the processing capacity for all communities to handle municipal waste at its highest and best use. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) acknowledged the need for making significant investments in solid waste processing technology as part of its “2017 Infrastructure Report Card for Solid Waste Management.” In this report, ASCE graded the country’s infrastructure with a C+. Additionally, the ASCE highlighted that the country’s solid waste infrastructure, though it was functional, lacked the waste recovery facilities—and technology—needed to support significant diversion in most communities.

The lack of advanced processing is due, in part, to low landfill tip fees. Investing in automated mechanical separation, chemical reformation and energy recovery simply requires more capital than sending waste to landfills. Fortunately, communities are partnering with private industry to invest in solutions such as single-stream municipal recovery facilities (MRFs), composting facilities and conversion technologies to make these investments more economically viable. For example, the Municipal Review Committee Inc. (MRC), a nonprofit that represents 115 municipalities in Maine, has partnered with Fiberight LLC to develop a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) processing facility in Hampden, Maine. This privately owned facility is expected to divert “80 percent of the material it receives either into renewable energy or recycling.”

When fully operational, the facility is expected to process 180,000 tons of MSW per year from 104 communities. Overall, the facility comprises a $70 million investment financed through a combination of equity and tax-exempt bonds and will have a tipping fee of around $70 per ton. It is worth noting that MBT facilities have enjoyed broad adoption across the European Union (EU) where they are used to recover recyclables and produce solid recovered fuel (SRF) that can serve as a substitute for coal.

Let us consider for a moment the capital investment it would take for the nation to pursue a zero waste goal of diverting 90 percent of the 139 million tons of solid waste that is currently going to landfill using mixed processing facilities with MBT technology. If we used mixed processing on the front end to maximize material recovery and thermal processing technologies as a secondary processing unit for the non-recyclable material, we estimate the country would need to spend between $100-$120 billion to cover the capital expenditures of the new facilities needed to handle 139 million tons. Using a private-sector capital recovery factor of 15 percent implies the U.S. would have to invest between $100 and $125 per ton of solid waste processed. This analysis does not consider facility operating costs or revenue earned from the sale of products and energy.

Understanding the capital intensity of ZWL infrastructure can help us better evaluate the cost of investing in other zero waste practices that call for source reduction of materials, such as extended producer responsibility bills. With an idea of how much it costs to process solid waste through advanced processing technology, we can better evaluate decisions on whether it is more cost-effective to invest in end-of-life processing for a ton of solid waste or invest in ways to stop the creation of that ton of waste from being developed in the first place. These discussions will truly push our country towards a more sustainable future that can yield a healthier and more equitable solid waste system for all.