Averaged out across the US, we’re all producing four pounds of garbage per day. That’s 250 million tons of trash each year. Maybe we’re not making it directly, but we’re indirectly responsible for those numbers. And most of that municipal solid waste, as it’s known, gets collected and shuttled into landfills where it sits. And sits. And sits. And siiiits, doing a whole lot of nothing. But at the Commerce Refuse to Energy Facility in California, trash is being used to create enough power about 15,000 homes at any given time.
That’s waste-to-energy. Or energy-from-waste. Whatever you want to call it. It’s when garbage is used to create heat or electricity or even combustible fuel. At Commerce, garbage becomes energy via fire – there’s a huge furnace where everything from clothing to waste packaging to paper is incinerated in a giant fire that burns all day and all night. The heat powers turbines that make electricity, and that electricity is sold to providers. Supposedly, it burns pretty cleanly, but there are still concerns about poisonous emissions so instead of building waste-to-energy plants, we dig more landfills. (According to the New York Times, modern incineration plants are so clean that “many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.”)
In parts of Europe and Japan, on the other hand, there are hundreds of trash power plants – like the one above, in Vienna. Yes, that’s an incineration plant! Isn’t it pretty? It’s not surprising that you’re seeing trash becoming energy outside of the US. We feel like we have all the space in the world to dig pits, fill them with trash, turn the pit into a park (ew…), then move on to the next site. Whereas Europe and Japan don’t have a huge supply of free space to dig garbage pits. That’s why you find waste-to-energy plants smack dab in the middle of neighborhoods and plenty of research into new ways to turn all the yucky stuff we – rightly or wrongly – discard into power. From Wikipedia:
There are a number of other new and emerging technologies that are able to produce energy from waste and other fuels without direct combustion. Many of these technologies have the potential to produce more electric power from the same amount of fuel than would be possible by direct combustion. This is mainly due to the separation of corrosive components (ash) from the converted fuel, thereby allowing higher combustion temperatures in e.g. boilers, gas turbines, internal combustion engines, fuel cells. Some are able to efficiently convert the energy into liquid or gaseous fuels.
The big barrier to waste-to-energy in the US? Public opinion. People can’t get past the emissions thing. Heck, the idea of someone coming into my town and opening a big ol’ factory that’s going to burn trash gives me the creepies just a little bit. But check this out:
In the event that the waste was landfilled, 1 metric ton (1.1 short tons) of MSW would produce approximately 62 cubic metres (2,200 cu ft) methane via the anaerobic decomposition of the biodegradable part of the waste. This amount of methane has more than twice the global warming potential than the 1 metric ton (1.1 short tons) of CO2, which would have been produced by combustion. In some countries, large amounts of landfill gas are collected, but still the global warming potential of the landfill gas emitted to atmosphere in e.g. the US in 1999 was approximately 32 % higher than the amount of CO2 that would have been emitted by combustion.
What’s your take? Let’s say we got everyone recycling and repurposing or Freecycling the stuff that’s perfectly good and composting and so on – how would you feel about your municipality using modern waste-to-energy technology on what was left?