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Biomass explained Waste-to-energy (Municipal Solid Waste)

Useable energy can be produced from municipal solid waste

Municipal solid waste (MSW), often called garbage or trash, is used to produce energy at waste-to-energy plants and at landfills in the United States. MSW contains:

  • Biomass, or biogenic (plant or animal products), materials such as paper, cardboard, food waste, grass clippings, leaves, wood, and leather products
  • Nonbiomass combustible materials such as plastics and other synthetic materials made from petroleum
  • Noncombustible materials such as glass and metals

In 2018, about 12% of the 292 million tons of MSW produced in the United States was processed in waste-to-energy plants.

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Waste-to-energy plants make steam and electricity

MSW is usually burned at special waste-to-energy plants that use the heat from the fire to make steam for generating electricity or heating buildings. In 2022, 63 U.S. power plants generated about 12.8 billion kilowatthours of electricity from burning about 26.6 million tons of combustible MSW for electricity generation. Biomass materials accounted for about 61% of the weight of the combustible MSW and for about 45% of the electricity generated. The remainder of the combustible MSW was nonbiomass material, mainly plastics. Many large landfills also generate electricity by using the methane gas that is produced from decomposing biomass in landfills.

Waste-to-energy is a waste management option

Producing electricity is only one reason to burn MSW. Burning waste also reduces what would probably be buried in landfills.

Waste-to-energy plants reduce 2,000 pounds of garbage to ash that weighs about 300 pounds to 600 pounds, and they reduce the volume of waste by about 87%.

Waste-to-energy plants are in many countries

Many countries have waste-to-energy plants. The use of waste-to-energy plants in some European countries and in Japan is relatively high, in part, because those countries have little open space for landfills.

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Last updated: November 6, 2023, with data available at the time of update.