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Talkin' trash: Are we literally throwing away energy?

Image by Ropable via Wikimedia Commons: Picture of a Caterpillar 826C landfill compactor being used at an Australian landfill site. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Landfill_compactor.jpg

Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann wakes up every day thinking about trash. What got him thinking about it in the first place is how much of it is simply dumped into landfills across America when most of what is not recyclable could instead be turned into energy for homes and businesses everywhere.

Schmidt-Pathmann has seen a better approach in his native Germany where only about 1 percent of all municipal waste goes into landfills. This compares with about 68 percent in the United States of the 400 million tons discarded annually, he explains. (Exact numbers are hard to come by, but he prefers figures collected by Biocycle Magazine.) Germans recycle almost 70 percent of their municipal waste and burn almost all the rest to turn it into energy.

Schmidt-Pathmann is founder and executive director of the Zero Landfill Initiative based in Seattle. He says that the United States could add 12 gigawatts (billions of watts) of electricity generation by expanding waste-to-energy facilities even if the country upped its percentage of recycling to that of Germany's. The United States currently recycles about 25 percent of its waste. Burning all the landfill waste currently available would provide an extra 33 gigawatts. That would be the equivalent of 33 large electricity generating plants.

But, Schmidt-Pathmann thinks he knows why there is so much resistance to the German model in the United States.

First, Americans still believe that burning waste is a dirty business, giving off toxic fumes and plumes of smoke. But modern waste-to-energy facilities produce little in the way of air pollution using up-to-date technology to reduce emissions to a minimum. High-temperature burning breaks apart the bonds of toxic chemicals.

Schmidt-Pathmann says that we should think about the advances in waste-to-energy plants over the last thirty years in the same way we think about advances in computers from the first floppy disk operated ones in the early 1980s to the supercomputers of today.

Second, landfills used to be controlled mostly by municipalities. Now the vast majority of them in the United States are owned by private waste haulers who in turn haul 80 percent of the municipal waste in the country. It's currently cheaper for those haulers to dump the waste remaining after recycling into their landfills than to burn or recycle more carefully what's left.

In Germany it became government policy to reduce landfill disposal and therefore the government made it very expensive to use landfills. There is so far no such policy in America. In addition, there is far more land in America for creating landfills than in Germany making it cheaper to build them.

Third, Americans somehow believe that waste-to-energy facilities will result in less recycling. But a recent survey demonstrated that communities with waste-to-energy facilities actually recycle slightly MORE material than those without. This may be due to the fact that such communities tend to be leaders in waste handling and so have well-established recycling programs.

Moreover, waste-to-energy facilities recycle large amounts of metal that remain after the waste is burned. One company, Covanta, operating across the United States recovers the equivalent of five to six Golden Gate bridges of metals each year from the ash that remains after combustion.

Still, what's so bad about putting trash in a landfill? Here's what's bad about it according to Schmidt-Pathmann. Even though landfills produce methane that can be gathered and used to power generating plants, a portion of that methane--a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide--still leaks into the atmosphere. Beside this, much more energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions could be produced from the buried trash if it were instead burned.

Also, it turns out that private landfill operators are only responsible for their landfills for 30 years after closing. After that, society at large becomes responsible for the care and monitoring of those landfills which will remain hazardous for thousands of years. When these costs are added to the costs of landfilling, it becomes obvious why burning what can't be recycled makes economic as well as environmental health sense. And, it makes all the more clear why Pathmann believes that zero landfill should be our goal.

How could waste-to-energy and near zero landfill become the norm in America? It will only happen when landfilling becomes more expensive than the alternatives or when government forces it to happen.

Currently, Schmidt-Pathmann explains, the private waste haulers in the United States are politically powerful and quite understandably don't want their huge investment in landfills and the surrounding waste transportation infrastructure to become worthless. One way change could occur is if waste haulers were somehow reimbursed over time for what would become their stranded landfill assets in a manner similar to the way utilities are reimbursed through rate hikes for the mothballing of generating plants that become useless for regulatory or economic reasons.

Higher waste disposal rates would certainly be unpopular, but they could lead to a much safer future with cleaner energy and more recycling. Despite the higher cost, this might turn out to be a better course than containing and cleaning up ever expanding landfills indefinitely or hoping in vain that private waste haulers will voluntarily abandon their costly landfill infrastructure without compensation in favor of what's best for society.

There is one other possibility. Municipalities typically have waste hauling franchise agreements with private haulers that allow them access to residents. Those contracts often permit municipalities to divert waste to better uses such as recycling and energy production so long as at least some waste continues to go to landfills according the Schmidt-Pathmann. Whether municipalities have the will to go down this road--essentially starving the haulers of trash for their landfills--seems doubtful. The politically connected haulers will be unlikely to stand still as their businesses shrink for lack of trash.

Right now the United States produces 1 million football fields of trash 6 feet deep each year. We'd like to think that once we throw something away, we don't have to think about it anymore. But, unless we start doing things differently in the United States, we'll actually end up having to think about our trash for a very, very long time to come.

Image by Ropable via Wikimedia Commons: Picture of a Caterpillar 826C landfill compactor being used at an Australian landfill site.

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