Waste to Energy: Shaking a Dirty Reputation

English: A green Waste Management rolloff rubb...

English: A green Waste Management rolloff rubbish container in a parking lot in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been estimated that the average person generates 4 1/2 pounds of waste each and every day.  Despite the fact that reports show that close to 75% of all solid waste can be recycled, most of this waste ends up in landfills. According to figures, we dispose of 27 million tons of rubbish in landfill sites each year. That’s 7 million more than any other country.  Landfills pose a threat to our health and the environment and it’s not a sustainable waste solution. Experts predict that we will run out of landfill space by 2016.

But what can we do about it? The first thing we need do is to change how we think about waste, how and what we consume, and what to do with the waste we generate. Much of this can be done on a grassroots level, but let’s face it…unless the cities, states and government also take a vested interest in reducing waste and finding a viable solution to get rid of the large volumes of waste generated, little will be done on a broad scale. One potential solution being explored in Frederick County: turning solid waste into energy.

This past fall, Sweden announced that it will begin importing 1.3 million metric tons of garbage per year to convert into energy. Waste-to-energy (the process of incinerating garbage to produce steam that drives a generator) not only provides electricity for 250,000 Swedish homes, but also meets 20% of the nation’s district heating needs. Swedish recycling is so efficient that their trash heaps have run dry, and Sweden is not alone—Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have also found themselves in the market for foreign waste. Meanwhile, the United States annually landfills 135.5 million tons of trash, and New York City alone ships 3 million tons of trash to landfills in surrounding states at a rate of $92 per ton.

On Wednesday, community members in Frederick County had a chance to weigh on the proposed “Regional Energy Recovery Facility” a Waste-to Energy Incinerator that would power 45,000 homes in Frederick County, and debate became heated. Proponents of the facility claim that this technology will move Maryland towards “zero-waste.” Opponents cite concerns over emissions.

In America, waste-to-energy plants have a history steeped in pollution. The technology lacks an idyllic mascot like solar and wind. However, waste-to-energy (WTE) technology has vastly improved over the past few decades. In Europe, it is the gold standard for green waste management. Assuming you can separate out hazardous materials like batteries in the incoming fuel (trash) waste to energy plants are relatively safe.  Waste-to-energy plants allow us to produce more electricity from common garbage that would otherwise be left to decay. The resulting power means less coal or other fossils fuels need to be burned in order to generate the same amount of electricity.

The truth is that we need a better waste management system. While not the perfect solution, I believe that the proposed WTE facility in Frederick County can be both green and safe alternative to landfills.  If built however, it’s critical that we avoid the “go ahead and throw your trash out today because it just might end up powering our future!” mentality. A consumer society where everything is seen as disposable and replaceable is not sustainable. Simply speaking, we’re generating too much waste. We all can take action to promote eco-friendly waste management by:

  • Reducing our overall consumption
  • Reusing and recycling those items that have more life in them (so to speak)
  • Promoting and pursuing green technologies that can convert waste to energy (composting at home is a great start!)

Posted by : Shannon McGarry

Project Specialist

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Shannon McGarry

Shannon McGarry, a Project Specialist at Campaign Consultation, Inc., was an environmental activist from age 7 when she organized neighborhood children to protest a housing development.  Her dedication to sustainable water & sanitation systems grew from her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Read More

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