Rethinking Waste as a Resource

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from Ashley Halligan who had recently written an article on innovative Resource Recovery Facilities. Ashley asked if I would be willing to write a post on my blog about the topic, and since I had been looking for a new topic to write about, I happily obliged. But instead of just talking about Facilities, I’m going to talk about Resource Recovery as it pertains to waste-to-energy, and my thoughts on the topic of waste and the social stigma it carries.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, Resource Recovery is the act of using discarded materials for recycling, composting or energy generation. Basically, it’s turning waste into a resource. As the Sustainability Movement continues to gain momentum, Resource Recovery has been gaining publicity. In much of the world, recycling and composting have already been accepted as common ways to be responsible citizens of the world (although that does not mean many people are practicing recyclers and composters). However, the issue of waste-to-energy recovery continues to be a touchy subject, especially in the Unites States.

When we throw away our non-recyclable or non-compostable items in the garbage, the waste is sent to landfills – huge mountains of trash – where the waste is left to decompose and eventually be buried under a few feet of soil and grass. As organic materials decompose among the heap of waste, dirty water – called Leachate – and methane are produced, that’s where the waste-to-energy concept comes into play. Companies construct methane-capturing facilities, drilling wells into the landfills, and burn the methane to generate electricity. It’s a great method of converting what would normally be trash left to rot into a usable resource in the form of energy as electricity or heat.

Ashley’s article outlines three recent waste-to-energy facilities in the United States. North Carolina’s EcoComplex produces enough energy to supply 1,500 residents, Rutgers University’s EcoComplex powers many on-campus buildings, and BMW harvests the methane from a neighboring landfill to power its manufacturing facilities. The EPA has been pushing for more waste-to-energy facilities, noting that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, reduces pollution (any pollutants such as mercury or dioxin that try to escape during the burning process are captured) and offers economic revenue through the sale of energy. The EPA also created the Landfill Methane Outreach Program to encourage landfills to capture and sell their gas to power plants; however, the program is only voluntary. And while some remain hopeful (see here) that the trend of waste-to-energy grows within the U.S., the U.S. is already behind in the industry.

Many European countries, such as The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, have been partially powering their cities with waste-to-energy facilities for quite a while now. In fact, Europe has 400 waste-to-energy plants compared to the U.S.’s 87 plants, all of which are at least 15 years old. Denmark, with a population of 5.5 million, has 29, with 10 more on the way. These plants generate electricity, heat the homes of citizens, and reduce the country’s dependence on oil and gas. Brazil also features many waste-to-energy plants. If these countries are benefiting so much, what is stopping the U.S. from following suit?

The answer, I think, lies with how U.S. society, the government, and private industry views waste. Waste is often regarded as something unwanted, something to be kept away from sight (this is true for not just the U.S.). Because of this, the moment trash leaves our hands, we forget about it. Because of this, waste is left to rot without anyone coming back to give it a second change, to really study the potential benefits certain materials possess. We have made some advancements by advocating recycling and composting, but things that can’t be recycled or composted are still valuable to, even if they certainly don’t look or smell like it. We need to start seeing waste as not something to be forgotten, but something to be utilized, waste is a resource. I recently had a discussion with a friend who used to work for a large waste management company. She recounted how on one of her visits to a landfill, she came across a street where many people lived that were opposed to the waste-to-energy plant, citing pollution as the main reason. Yet on the front curb of these houses, these people were burning plastic. Waste management is a topic that should be continually taught to the citizens. Some environmentalists against waste-to-energy say that burning garbage produces harmful gases and chemicals, which they are correct. But the latest technologies have allowed waste-to-energy plants to burn waste more cleanly than traditional incinerators. In a sense, waste should not be called waste, it’s a renewable resource.

Of course, the obvious issue with promoting waste-to-energy plants is the same with any waste-to-energy scheme: by building these plants, aren’t we promoting the continual overconsumption and waste practices that have already developed? In a sense, aren’t we encouraging people to waste now that they can have a clean conscious knowing that their waste is being put to good use? It’s important to note that promoting waste-to-energy does not necessarily mean one is detracting from the practice of recycling. In fact, Germany and Denmark both lead Europe as the countries with the most waste-to-energy plants, and highest recycling rates. Only the unrecyclable waste is burned, so it appears that having a plant does not mean less recycling. Another point I would make when addressing this issue is how industry views waste. To businesses, the moment a product leaves the shelves, they are no longer responsible for the waste produced by their products. Because of this, many products are made with an unreasonable amount of materials (just think about how many boxes or packaging the items you have on your desk had) and are made with a combination of materials that make recycling extremely difficult. Manufacturers put little to no effort in designing products that can easily be disassembled or recycled, in fact some companies even try to design products to prevent disassembly (I’m looking at you, Apple). When waste is easily decomposed or disassembled to be recycled, reused or burned-for-energy, is it really waste? The waste management company is not the only entity responsible for where waste goes or how it’s used, it’s a responsibility that falls within the manufacturers and the users. As of right now, I am unaware of any partnerships between waste management companies and manufacturers to produce easily recyclable and manageable products. It needs to happen.

Waste management companies shoulder an immense part of the responsibility. As the entity closest to the waste, these companies should push the waste-to-energy agenda. After all, they seem to be the ones benefitting the most. They have a new source of income by selling gas and they can better utilize landfill space (thus making sure they don’t need to purchase more land). However, as my friend noted, the waste management industry is pretty much a monopolized industry. Because of this, progress is slow. It took my friend’s company a full 10 years to finally start implementing a program where many of their trucks were fueled by the gas produced at their waste-to-energy plants. Let’s get some innovation going waste management companies! And I know it’s not all your fault.

Copenhagen Waste-to-energy Plant (BIG)

Now as for governments, both federal and municipal, maybe once the social stigma has been overcome and the benefits are clearly outlined, U.S. governments will start realizing the tremendous benefits of waste-to-energy plants. Sure, like any other infrastructure project, the capital cost is high, but consider this: New York City spends $307 million to haul their trash away from the city all the way to Ohio and South Carolina. Think of all the money that could be saved, not to mention all the greenhouse gases not emitted from the exhaust pipes of trains and trucks. One of the reasons the U.S. has been able to get away with not building such plants is because the U.S. has a lot more land compared to Europe. We still have a lot of land that could be used for landfills (but really, do we want that?), and because of that, there is not pressure to deal with the waste we already have. But my friend also noted something interesting about the paper recycling industry. Apparently it is actually cheaper for paper companies to make paper from newly cut down trees than from recycled trees because the government currently gives out subsidies to paper companies that cut down trees because of the valuable resin within the trunks. That doesn’t really make sense. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Europe’s harsh measures of heavily penalizing people who do not properly recycle or produce too much waste, it seems very counter-intuitive to offer subsidies for cutting down new trees while pouring money into recycling programs.

Waste-to-energy is just starting to gain traction in the U.S., and hopefully it becomes another source of alternative energy. I think the main takeaway is that waste shouldn’t be seen as such. I think the only way we are going to ever get into a sustainable society is if we start learning how to operate and design symbiotically. That means seeing waste as a resource, everything can be repurposed, whether it be reuse, recycle, or energy. Perhaps in the future, there will be more Recycle bins than waste bins, and waste bins will read “To Energy” instead.

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