How Can We Turn Waste Into Energy?

Jane Marsh - April 6, 2023

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Recycling is one practical way to reduce the amount of trash that ends up in landfills. However, people have been working on viable ways to turn waste into energy for decades. Incineration is one widespread option. However, it’s not ideal because the method creates smoke, gases and ash waste and is considered an alternative but not renewable energy resource.

In 2017, there was even a method created to turn toilet used paper into electricity. Scientists continually look for better options. Those may have downsides too. However, the quest for ongoing improvement should bode well for the environment overall. 

Turning Plastics Into Jet Fuel

Reducing the world’s dependence on single-use plastics is a challenging goal. However, it has already resulted in some positive changes. Those include swapping plastic straws for metal and paper and encouraging people to choose reusable grocery bags.

People also hope to make air travel more sustainable. That could happen by redesigning planes to use less energy and minimize emissions. However, it could also occur by altering the aircraft fuel source. Potential ingredients include mixtures of sugar water and corn.

However, making progress by turning waste into energy to power a flight would be fantastic, too. A team at Washington State University developed a process that can turn up to 90% of plastic waste into jet fuel within an hour. They chose a catalytic process. It’s reportedly more effective than other methods that usually melt plastics and remold them for other purposes. Those efforts can lower the material’s quality and make it less valuable.

The researchers also clarified they could tweak parts of the process, such as the time, temperature, or the amount of catalyst used. Then, they can create different products based on needs. That detail could mean this process becomes beneficial for things far beyond sustainable jet fuel. It’s also advantageous that the method is so efficient. If it takes too long to make waste into energy, the prospect becomes less desirable.

Tackling the Food Waste Problem

Statistics show that approximately one-third of the food produced annually for humans gets discarded. Fortunately, people are starting to take the matter more seriously. For example, some apps let users sign up to receive food from local restaurants that would otherwise get thrown out. It’s usually at a discounted price, meaning households can save on food without having to cook. However, turning food waste into energy is another option.

In one example, Massachusetts farmers gather food waste from stores and other outlets around the state. The first step involves putting the products into an industrial grinder, which turns them into a liquid material for easier transport. Then, the liquid goes into an anaerobic digester.

At one participating farm, the operators accept about 100 tons of waste daily. However, it’s worth the effort. After going through the digester, the material produces enough electricity to power 1,500 homes. What doesn’t get used at the location processing the waste gets sold back to the grid. 

Significant progress is happening at the state level to combat food waste elsewhere as well. In California, people must separate all food and kitchen waste from other types of trash. That’s because officials want to redirect it to composting and anaerobic digestion facilities to keep it out of landfills. A possible outcome of this approach is that the waste could help power garbage trucks.

Converting Waste Into Energy With Radiation

Scientists search for new ways to create energy from waste with existing resources. Succeeding in that aim should make the processes more sustainable overall. In one recent example, engineers figured out a method of turning biochemical and nuclear waste into biofuel additives.

They believe this development could increase the renewable ingredients used in petroleum-based fuels. In turn, that change could help the world meet sustainability targets that are still far out of reach in many cases. 

The researchers discovered that the remaining energy from used nuclear fuel could be put towards making a catalyst caused by radiation. The resulting chemical reaction creates a fuel additive. It also makes a second ingredient the scientists said could help make other useful products, such as dyeing agents for textile plants. 

Working to Transform Waste Into Energy

These examples show that getting energy from waste is a goal within reach, and there are many ways to achieve it. Developments like the ones mentioned above give a glimpse into what’s possible and could encourage other researchers to explore different avenues that supplement these options. 

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.