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 May 03, 2010
The Benefits of Burning Trash & Garbage

 I dedicated a significant entry on this blog recently to dispelling myths propagated by the U.S. Ears Plugged Agency (EPA) and others on waste-to-energy. Today I will dedicate a smaller space to briefly explaining why it is that we SHOULD be burning trash for energy. Some of these reasons may be among those of which you were already aware; there are also others with which you may be unfamiliar, but which should be intuitive once they are considered.

- Waste-to-energy offers a significant wedge against climate change. When net emissions are considered, as they always should be, using trash as a fuel source for heat and electricity offers considerable offsets of emissions of CO2 from coal-fired utility stations used for baseload power, the largest source of global warming pollution, like other renewable energy technologies. Trash, the fuel used in waste-to-energy, counts as renewable because over half of the energy is derived from biomass, and 25 states and the District of Columbia recognize it as a renewable source in their renewable portfolio standards. However, unlike other renewables, WTE also creates further carbon offsets by preventing emission of methane, a strong global warming pollutant, from landfills. It also offsets emissions from mining and related activities by recovering metals for recycling, which in many cases would be very difficult if not impossible to recycle without combustion.

- Waste-to-energy prevents the harmful environmental effects of mining coal and drilling for oil and gas. It uses a fuel source that is available essentially everywhere that humans live, does not need to be mined or refined, and avoids fuel and materials supply depletion problems associated with fossil fuels and nuclear power.

- Burning trash eliminates pathogens such as Hepatitis C associated with solid waste processing. It is the most sanitary way of handling trash since it is the most automated, treats the waste with an effective amount of heat, and renders the waste chemically and biologically inert once treated.

- Combustion avoids the introduction of odors and pests into the solid waste system. Process air used in WTE plants is drawn from above the waste storage bunker, which creates a constant negative pressure that prevents any odors or dust from escaping the facility. By contrast, litter control is often a significant challenge at landfills, and even modern landfills observing sound daily cover practices may still experience odor problems. Recycling and composting facilities are often associated with strong odors and are less regulated than either landfills or WTE plants.

- Combustion reduces the volume of waste ultimately disposed by 90%, significantly conserving landfill capacity and saving costs for cities. Because WTE avoids land use issues associated with landfilling, it allows populated areas to avoid long-hauling of waste for disposal in remote landfills as currently practiced in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and many of the other largest cities in the United States. New York pays just $60 per ton as a tipping fee for each of several hundred tons of trash it generates that are disposed at a WTE plant in Newark, NJ, while paying well over $100 per ton to haul waste to remote landfills in South Carolina, Ohio, and elsewhere.

- Use of combustion technology is typically associated with higher rates of recycling than communities that landfill waste. Communities that operate these facilities have demonstrated a stake in environmentally and economically sound management of waste and therefore are more likely to also operate well-run recycling facilities, in addition to recovering scrap metals from WTE ash. On average, a WTE community has a 3-5% higher recycling rate than a non-WTE community.

- Combustion offers higher and more substantial offsets of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental benefits than recycling and composting, supposed alternatives advocated by officials at EPA and environmental groups such as the state PIRGs, Greenpeace, and the national Sierra Club. Composting and recycling are not alternatives to disposal; empirically, no community has ever managed to recycle or compost all of its waste. These activities also depend upon access to stable markets for recovered materials and compost products in order to achieve their benefits and recover the capital and operating costs of facilities. Viewing recycling as a substitute for sound disposal does not lead to beneficial outcomes because it gives ammunition to NIMBYists who oppose the construction of disposal facilities, and in some cases leads to crises wherein municipalities have no place to dispose of trash because of past failures to plan for present and future disposal needs. Not all materials can be or should be physically recycled or composted.

- Disposing of post-combustion ash leads to fewer problems with the lack of waste degradation in the "dry tomb" landfills mandated by EPA once closed and hence long-term waste stabilization, and avoids production of landfill gas and leachate that can potentially pose environmental problems long after the closure of landfills.

- Waste-to-energy plants have superior safety records compared to both landfills and recycling facilities, especially mass burn plants where potentially hazardous and inefficient pre-processing and sorting of waste are avoided.

- Waste-to-energy plants provide many high-quality jobs to the communities they serve, such as roughly 50 jobs for plant operators per plant, construction labor person-hours during the final plant construction, and engineering, design and architecture work.

- WTE is among the most reliable of all renewable energy sources and one of the few that can be used directly for base loading power. It also works well in combination with district energy systems for space heating and cooling or process heat needs for industry, as it provides reliable and low-cost thermal energy. A typical capacity factor for an electrical generating WTE plant is 95%, among the highest of any energy source.

Posted by wastedenergy