Waste-to-Energy Technology: A Renewable Solution?

I recently came across an article about a study on how waste-to-energy technology can help the rural areas of Africa, where electricity is scarce, and waste management is lacking. The study suggested that in 2012, Africa’s urban area waste could have been converted into 300 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, if waste-to-energy technology was utilized. Because only a portion of Africa’s waste is collected, the actual number of kilowatt hours of electricity from landfills, if collected and converted into electricity, would have been 34 billion kilowatt hours in 2012. That’s still a lot of kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power 3.2 million U.S. homes for an entire year! If the waste in urban areas of Africa could provide that much electricity for its rural areas, there would be a lot more people with electricity, and a lot less waste sitting around. So, what really is waste-to-energy technology? How does it work? Who is actually using waste-to-energy for a renewable energy source? And more importantly, how can waste-to-energy be utilized in developing countries like Africa to help energy poverty in rural areas?


What is Waste-to-Energy?

Waste-to-energy is a renewable energy source that converts trash into energy for electricity.


How Does Waste-to-Energy Work?

Just like fossil fuels, the trash is burned in a power plant in a combustion chamber, which heats and boils water in tubes. The steam from the boiling water then powers turbines which generates the electricity. The un-recycable trash transforms into ash, which is then dumped into landfills.


Where are Waste-to-Energy Plants Found?

Most waste-to-energy plants are located in the United States, Europe, and Japan.


Pros of Waste-to-Energy

  • Waste that gets piled up in landfills is reduced
  • Inexpensive fuel source
  • Renewable source of energy (we will always have waste)
  • Capacity of landfills are expanded
  • Reduces the need for fossil fuels
  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to that of fossil fuels
  • Promotes more recycling (un-recycables are sorted for the electricity production process)


Cons of Waste-to-Energy

  • Plastics, metal, and glass may not be removed 100% in the sorting process. This can lead to the burning of important and natural resources, resulting in more land mining.
  • Waste-to-Energy plants can be costly to build
  • A large percentage of the population is still unconvinced the process is clean and free from chemicals (controversial topics include the release of toxic metals, dioxins, and acid gases from the ash, and the removal of fly ash)


Should Developing Countries Turn to Waste-to-Energy Technology?

African countries have major problems with waste management, as the trash is piled and piled from an increase in the urban population, and an increase in a growing middle class. Recycling and waste reduction should be practiced to eliminate the amount of waste, but it isn’t on Africa’s list of top priorities. The mounds and mounds of garbage produce methane, drainage problems, and the breeding of mosquito-related diseases. A viable option for the African countries affected would be to take all of the waste and convert it into electricity for their rural population. This will open up jobs, opportunities for economic gain for the producers, and teach entrepreneurs new skills. Waste-to-energy could also lead to recycling efforts when economic value is attached, since sorting the waste is crucial for the incineration process.

Because building waste-to-energy plants is costly, a mixture of contributions are needed from local communities, stakeholders, policy-makers, etc. to help with the areas of electricity poverty and poor waste management. The people of Africa should be taught that electricity can be available if the efforts are there. It would be like killing two birds with one stone: creating electricity powered by their own waste to lower the barrier to entry for the poor communities, and eliminating the urban population’s mountain of waste, all the while developing the potential for an economically-sound operation with a lot of opportunity.



Waste-to-energy: African cities can transform their energy landscapes