Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Burning Trash

Burning trash to make electricity, or "waste-to-energy", is very common in Europe, especially Denmark and the Netherlands. But no new incinerators have been built in the US in 15 years. In the NY Times, Elizabeth Rosenthal explores why.

The biggest issue is public perception that incinerators are dirty, left over from an earlier generation of plants. The new ones in Europe include hi-tech scrubbers that remove almost all the heavy metals, the worst issue with old incinerators, and most other pollutants. But attitudes change slowly. Rosenthal notes that the New York City government would like to build an incinerator, but isn't trying because it would take years to find a site and overcome local opposition: "It's a NIMBY issue."

And, many environmentalists are not on board. They see using trash for fuel as an excuse to avoid reducing waste:
“Incinerators are really the devil,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Investing in garbage as a green resource is simply perverse when governments should be mandating recycling, she said. “Once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you then have to feed it. Our priority is pushing for zero waste.”

Now, New York trucks thousands of tons of trash every day to distant landfills near dying factory towns in Ohio, where people are desperate enough for work that they don't mind the stigma of being New York's dumping ground. That is madly inefficient and environmentally nuts -- try to imagine all the diesel fuel being used to truck New York's trash 400 miles. And since, as far as I am concerned, "zero waste" is a weird fantasy, modern incinerators seem like a good idea to me. But don't count on any being built any time soon.

The picture shows the old Georgetown Incinerator, where I dug back in 1999 -- there was a 4,000-year-old Indian campsite buried under ten feet of fill right next to the building. Now it has been incorporated into a luxury hotel with a neo-industrial theme (below).

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