Market News

 April 28, 2010
Power From Trash ...

 IT'S been 25 years since the New York City Board of Estimate, under Mayor Edward Koch's leadership, approved a plan to reduce the need for putting municipal garbage in landfills by developing facilities to burn it to create energy. At the same time, the city took the first steps toward creating a recycling program. Since then, disposal costs have risen faster than inflation, and the need to find better methods of getting rid of wastes is even greater.

That fledgling recycling program evolved into the effective system the city has in place today, but no waste-to-energy plants were ever built. Instead, in 2001, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed the city's last remaining landfill, and since then the city has sent every pound of nonrecycled municipally collected trash out of the city --- about 15 percent of it to a waste-to-energy plant in Newark, but most of it to destinations in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina. In such places, New York's waste despoils the landscape at a rate of 140 acres a year.

As New York City's garbage decomposes, it releases some 1.2 million metric tons a year of carbon dioxide and its equivalents --- primarily methane --- into the atmosphere. On top of that, the fuel it takes to haul 11,000 tons of waste hundreds of miles six days a week releases an additional 55,000 tons of greenhouse gas per year.

When commercial waste collected by private carters is added to the total, hauling New York City's waste to landfills uses half as much fuel every year as the city's taxi fleet running 24/7. The combined annual greenhouse emissions from hauling and putting this waste in landfills amount to half as much as is released to produce the city's electricity.

Since New York began exporting its garbage, the Sanitation Department's budget has more than doubled, to $1.3 billion in the current fiscal year from less than $600 million in 1997. And in the past seven years, the costs of the city's landfill contracts have gone up more than $90 million, enough to pay 1,000 full-time firefighters, nurses or teachers.

So what should we do? For starters, New York should try to reduce the amount of waste its citizens produce --- for example, by imposing a fee for collection of waste but not recyclables. Much of what remains could be recycled or composted; these are the most cost-effective and environmentally benign ways to deal with waste. But they cannot handle everything that people throw out.

The city's Solid Waste Management Plan calls for hauling the rest of the garbage away by train rather than by truck. But while trains use only a third as much fuel as trucks do, and produce only about a third of the emissions, they will still burn some 3.5 million gallons of diesel fuel, emit 50,000 tons of greenhouse gases and cost tens of millions of dollars --- all to carry away New York's garbage every year.

We can do better. The fraction of New York's garbage that requires disposal should be processed in waste-to-energy plants --- which not only produce energy but are also cheaper and less polluting than landfills. (The city's Newark contract is its least costly disposal arrangement, and it produces only one-forty-fifth of the greenhouse gases that putting the same amount of garbage in landfills would.) If all of the city's nonrecycled waste were sent to local energy recovery facilities instead of distant landfills, the city would save diesel fuel and generate enough energy to supply 145,000 homes --- thus avoiding the combustion of nearly three million barrels of oil to generate electricity.

The main impediment to moving ahead on waste-to-energy plans has been a lack of political will. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his final term and free of electoral constraints, has the opportunity to make new plans to build a sustainable waste-management system that could serve for decades.

Since not all of the facilities could be built at one time, the plan could include a mix of both long-established technologies and some whose advantages are just beginning to be demonstrated. The most widely used kinds of waste-to-energy facilities --- mass-burn, steam-turbine electric generators that use waste for fuel (rather than gas, oil or coal) --- are typically relatively large. Newer kinds of facilities --- like those that subject waste to hot plasma to produce a synthetic fuel gas, or those that use anaerobic digestion to make methane --- could be built on smaller sites.

More than a decade ago, countries in the European Union committed themselves to stop burying anything other than inert materials (like broken glass and construction rubble) that are not easily recycled, biodegraded or burned. By immediately taking steps to do the same, New York City could reduce its use of costly landfills --- ultimately by 90 percent or more. It's the only responsible way for the city to manage its waste.

Norman Steisel was the New York City sanitation commissioner from 1978 to 1986. Benjamin Miller, the author of "Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York, the Last Two Hundred Years," was the Sanitation Department's director of policy planning from 1989 to 1992.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 2, 2010
An Op-Ed article on Wednesday, about generating electricity from garbage, incorrectly described Con Edison's role in supplying energy to New York City. It no longer produces electricity itself.