Waste to Energy is not the answer
Reader comment on: Harnessing the Energy of Trash
Submitted by Amy Perlmutter (United States), Dec 2, 2009 15:23
I am among the people whom your author refers to as believing in utopian society that embraces zero waste.
By way of background, I spent several years of my professional life working on development of a waste to energy plant, and many more working on developing recycling programs. I served as Director of Recycling for the City of San Francisco, a city that, at a 70% recycling rate, is now well on its way of achieving zero waste. I also served as the Executive Director of a state-sponsored environmental technology program in Massachusetts that sponsored research into new ways to reuse waste materials, and assisted manufacturers in turning recyclables into new products.
With that experience, I have to say that waste to energy is a ridiculous thing to do with resources, and is in no way an environmental technology.
People who promote these technologies forget to look at where the materials come from that feed these facilities. They are resources, many of which are non-renewable, that come from the earth. Minerals are mined, trees are cut down in faster rates than they can grow back, and water and energy are used to get them out of the ground, process them into feedstocks for industry, turn them into new products, and transport them to us, the most consumptive society in the world.
Burning these resources creates a small amount of energy, especially as compared to the energy saved by recycling, and means we have to continue the process of mining new resources. Recycling, however, precludes the need to mine new resources, and can feed local industries. Organic materials-- food and yard debris-- which comprise about 1/3 of our waste, can and should be composted. New technologies allow this to be done in a controlled environment that converts material at much lower heat than incineration, leaving us with compost that can be returned to the soil, as well as create energy much more efficiently than high heat technologies. Once this compost is returned to the land, it helps soil retain carbon, which helps to reduce greenhouse gasses. In addition, keeping organic matter out of the landfill cuts down the generation of methane, which is a much more toxic greenhouse gas than carbon.
To get to my utopia of zero waste, manufacturers would be involved in taking responsibility for the products they produce. This is already happening with much success around the world for such products as paint, batteries, and electronics. It will help encourage producers to make products that are less wasteful, less toxic, and that are recyclable, and cut down on the costs of waste management for communities.
We have many ways of generating truly renewable energy, which, when combined with energy efficiency, will meet our energy needs. We don't need incinerators as an energy source. I'd much rather pay the $50/ton that incineration might cost to support my local recycling program, and get real environmental benefits.
And, oh, that "cap and tax" that the author refers to in her opening paragraph? Right now polluters get off scott free for much of the pollution they create when they generate energy or manufacture a product. We are all, as a society, paying for the cost of these externalities through the degradation of our environment and health. Cap and Trade embraces the concept of Polluter Pays, it internalizes the external costs of pollution and make those that use the resource pay something to closer to the truer cost of these items. This gets us closer to a real free market system, where decisions can be made based on actual costs. Whether it's cap and trade or a carbon tax, these techniques to incorporate the costs of pollution into the products we buy and the energy we use will help lead us to a cleaner way of doing business.
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