In addressing global climate change, I find the concept of waste to energy elegant and fascinating. At a high level, waste to energy is the idea of mimicking earth’s natural processes that convert biological matter into something useful again. Fossil fuels are an example of this process, and in fact any biological matter, whether it’s within weeks or millions of years, will eventually be consumed by bacteria that produce methane as an output. Methane is the main constituent (70-90% by volume) of pipeline quality natural gas . So what’s really interesting about this concept is the idea that theoretically all of the world’s organic waste can be converted into renewable energy again.
One of the real issues facing growing economies, and even some mature ones, is the problem of waste management. In many cities, household garbage piles up in unsightly places, creating sanitation and smell problems. One solution is to incinerate it, which can be done in a rudimentary way, such as burning several families’ weekly garbage in a nearby ditch, to more sophisticated methods of incineration at a city managed site. Aside from pollution concerns, garbage incineration destroys non-organic materials that could have been recycled and organic materials that could have been converted into a useful energy source.
In countries where waste management is considered ‘best practice’, i.e. landfills are lined with impermeable geo-fabrics to prevent groundwater contamination and garbage is compacted and covered daily to minimize volume and smells (see Figure 1), there is still the issue of methane generation. As landfill waste decomposes, the biological processes taking place generate methane as a by-product, which is released into the atmosphere. In the US, municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third largest anthropogenic source of methane , a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of 25 times that of carbon dioxide and thus a relative concern in the global climate change discussion.
Figure 1. 
Waste Management (WM), a US-based firm that collects and manages municipal solid waste (MSW), is the market leader in the US waste management industry, owning and operating fleets of garbage collection trucks and landfill sites around the country. WM took advantage of a significant regulatory liability (the ownership of methane-producing landfills) and used it as an opportunity to create renewable energy. By investing in the infrastructure to extract, transport and clean the landfill gas, and in many cases convert the gas into power using an on-site reciprocating engine or steam turbine generator, WM was able to stay ahead of the regulatory environment looking to punish methane producers.
This was a pretty clever idea that waste companies have readily adopted, both to avoid regulatory issues and also potentially to earn some extra revenue on the side selling renewable power. WM currently provides landfill gas to over 135 projects, equivalent to powering 470,000 homes. Also of interest is WM’s strong push into recycling, which essentially removes recoverable non-organic components of waste prior to landfilling, increasing the efficiency of decomposition and methane generation. WM enacted single-source recycling, where consumers and businesses are encouraged to place all recyclable materials into one bin for WM to sort.
Although WM has been exceedingly committed to environmental sustainability, I do think that the waste management industry has a bigger role to play in educating consumers about product consumption (especially of cheaper goods that cannot be readily recycled or re-used) and its effects on climate change. Namely, I believe waste companies such as WM should educate customers to 1) demand more easily separable and recyclable products and 2) reduce its overall consumption of disposable goods.
Although it may not seem in line with waste companies’ core business, as the final ‘owner’ of 254 million tons of trash in 2013 , waste management companies are incentivized to reduce the amount of waste they receive, since all of it occupies precious space on their land. These companies also could feasibly benefit from additional recyclability of products and separability of materials within those products, in order to extract more value when re-selling non-organics such as metals, glass and rubber. Aside from the externalities of climate change that affect everyone, waste management companies may be the only players in the product consumption cycle that do not benefit from cheap, disposable goods. Just as they encouraged consumers to recycle more – Americans recycled and composted 87.2 million tons of material in 2013, preventing the release of about 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide  – waste management companies are uniquely positioned and incentivized to educate and facilitate consumer behavior toward making smarter purchases that consider a product’s end of life.
 NaturalGas.org. (2013, September 20). Background. Retrieved from NaturalGas.org: http://naturalgas.org/overview/background/
 US Environmental Protection Agency . (2016, September 20). Benefits of Landfill Gas Energy Projects. Retrieved from Landfill Methane Outreach Program: https://www.epa.gov/lmop/benefits-landfill-gas-energy-projects
 US Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, September 12). Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures. Retrieved from epa.gov: https://www.epa.gov/smm/advancing-sustainable-materials-management-facts-and-figures
 CSIMarket.com. (2016). Retrieved from http://csimarket.com/stocks/competitionSEG2.php?code=WM
 US Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, October 17). About Partners of the Landfill MEthane Outreach Program. Retrieved from Landfill Methane Outreach Program: https://www.epa.gov/lmop/about-partners-landfill-methane-outreach-program
 Waste Management. (2016). How We Think Green. Retrieved from Waste Management: http://www.wm.com/thinkgreen/how-we-thinkgreen.jsp#Renewable-Energy
 Texas Disposal Systems. (2016). Austin Landfill . Retrieved from Texas Disposal Systems: http://www.texasdisposal.com/austin-landfill/
 Teach Engineering. (n.d.). Design, Test and Build Your Own Landfill. Retrieved from Teach Engineering: https://www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_enveng_lesson05_activity2