study conducted by the  Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University has found that if all of the municipal solid waste (MSW) that is currently put into landfills each year in the United States were diverted to waste-to-energy (WTE) power plants, they could generate enough electricity to power nearly 14 million homes annually, or 12 percent of the U.S. total.  According to the study, this shift also could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 123 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year, an amount comparable to taking more than 23 million cars off our roads.

The study, ” 2014 Energy and Economic Value of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), including and Non-recycled Plastics (NRP), Currently Landfilled in the Fifty States,” found that the recovery of resources from waste, and hence, diverted from landfill, in the United States increased between 2008 and 2011.  The recycling of materials from MSW improved by 18.5 million tons, and the tonnage of materials processed by WTE facilities grew by 3.8 million tons during this period.

Key statistics from the study are illustrated in a new infographic bellow

The EEC study found that:

  • If we had the capacity to divert all of the solid waste that was landfilled in 2011 to waste-to-energy facilities,[i] we could generate enough electricity to supply about 13.8 million households[ii], or 12 percent of the entire United States.
  • If just the non-recycled plastics  in solid waste were to be source-separated and converted through today’s plastics-to-oil technologies into fuel oil[iii], they could produce 135 million barrels of oil per year – or 5.7 billion gallons of gasoline, enough to fuel 8.9 million cars
  • If we could convert our non-recycled waste to alternative energy instead of landfilling it, we could preserve more than 6,000 acres of open space every year that would otherwise be used to store garbage.

In a nutshell, EEC found that our everyday trash is an abundant, domestic energy resource, and that using more of today’s technologies to unlock that energy could also bring about environmental benefits, such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and making better use of energy than burying it in a landfill.