European Cities Converting Trash to Energy

Nations Embrace Waste-to-Energy Plants; U.S. Shies from Idea

Written by Green Chip Stocks
Posted April 30, 2010 at 2:08PM

An energy plant that burns thousands upon thousands of tons of garbage, twenty-four hours a day, and converts it into heat and electricity.

Sounds like a dream, doesn't it?

A feasible solution to ending landfills as we know them, whilst simultaneously moving away from fossil fuel dependency...

In Denmark, it's a reality.

Denmark now has 29 of these new "waste-to-energy" plants, which convert local household garbage and industrial waste using filters to catch pollutants that would have otherwise found themselves released into the atmosphere.

The plants are not only cleaner than conventional incinerators, but they are allowing Denmark's cities to consider garbage as a clean alternative fuel.

In effect, this kills two birds with one stone; it aids in the disposal of a problem for many urban areas, and it provides a resource for clean energy. And the plants achieve both of these things whilst reducing greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution.

Denmark's waste-to-energy plants currently serve 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people; ten additional plants are being planned or are currently under construction and will join the 400 plants that exist today across Europe.

The United States has no plans to build waste-to-energy plants, according to the EPA.

Nearly half of the nation's states, however, classify and burn waste to create renewable fuel. In the past, states and individual municipalities have decided the process and methods for waste management.

But based on the scale of our country compared to the nations leading waste-to-energy practice in Europe (Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands), the numbers are embarrassing...

There are only 87 trash-burning power plants in the United States, a country of more than 300 million people, and almost all were built at least 15 years ago.

It's important to note that nearly all of those 87 plants are in high density areas, like the North East. Much of the trash Americans generate is easily put out of sight and out of mind, because we have the land and space to do just that.

Why, then, is Uncle Sam hesitant to develop these plants that could reduce waste in water, landfills, and dumpsters and convert it to heat and electricity?

This seems like a no-brainer...

Converting unsightly trash would eliminate rats, disease, and otherwise unpleasant effects of landfills and dumpsters piled high with household garbage — the result of many people sharing a small living space; harnessing the fuel to create heat and electricity would counter the high cost of energy from fossil fuels that citizens currently struggle to afford.

There are two main sides of the argument against waste-to-energy plants in the U.S. of A.

The first lies among those who support recycling; they believe that creating a purpose for trash would encourage people to generate trash and not be as aware of buying recyclable materials and reducing and reusing their waste. These plants could potentially sabotage recycling programs many states have worked hard to institute and enforce in the last decade.

"Once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you then have to feed it. Our priority is pushing for zero waste," said an environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Group, who strongly opposes building a waste-to-energy plant in Manhattan.

But in many of the European cities that have embraced burning garbage for energy — that are currently expanding their plants — only what cannot be recycled goes to the plant as "fuel." Thus, recycling rates are quite high.

The other is (surprise!) the money argument. Landfills are cheaper, and from sea to shining sea, there is an abundance of places for us to bury our trash in the sand.

Landfills remain the final resting place for most Americans' trash. According to the New York Times: New York City alone sends 10,500 tons of residential waste each day to landfills in places like Ohio and South Carolina.

landfillThe cost to build these plants is high... and the United States is already so far in debt, it seems that this method of waste management — while sustainable, clean, and efficient — should take a back seat to the many other bills to be paid, so long as we have other methods of disposing of garbage... even if that means putting it in landfills.

But like most clean technology, the upfront costs are surpassed by the savings amassed over time. Trash removal and hauling is expensive.

The NYT reported the Big Apple's trash bill in 2009 at over $300 million to export trash and send it to faraway landfills via rail to Virginia and landfills in Middle America.

It would be unfair to ignore the fact that the incinerators and waste management methods of today aren't a vast improvement of their ancestors. Emissions and pollution have decreased significantly and energy is generated in traditional landfills from methane that results from the breakdown of garbage.

But methane is twice as potent as carbon dioxide and is the primary warming gas released in the process of burning garbage. Waste-to-energy plants produce lower levels of pollutants as they generate energy from incineration.

There are many arguments for and against a national plan to consider and build these plants in the United States. Some feel that ignoring the waste-to-energy plant option as a viable way to manage waste and create clean energy is, put simply, irresponsible.

I can't help but wonder if the same arguments were voiced 15 years ago, if the hybrid and electric vehicle was regarded much like this method of plant treatment for trash is today, during a time when there was enough foreseeable oil to gas up the Chevy. 

Why would someone want to spend a higher upfront cost for a vehicle if he or she didn't have to?

Why market a vehicle that could compete with our traditional automobiles?

Does the case for waste-to-energy plants fall under the If it ain't broke, don't fix it philosophy? And if so, maybe it's time we redefined "broke."