Friday, February 11, 2011

Waste – burn it or bury it?

Should the U.S. Burn or Bury Its Trash? (New York Times “Opinion”, Apr. 13, 2010)

Also discussed here: Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags (New York Times “Environment”, April 20, 2010)

This article raises a crucial question on dealing with waste generated, as opposed to reducing it in the first place. On the one hand, incineration produces air pollution and exchanges a challenge for land space to a challenge for air quality while offering some usable energy.

On the other hand, disposing of waste in landfills has challenges for ground water quality, as well as for the generation of disagreeable odours and worse for the air. Many municipalities (in the US and Canada at least) opt for landfills, given the availability of nearby land in many areas for this purpose, while taking initiatives to reduce waste by recycling organic waste and eliminating non renewable materials (such as plastic water bottles) from the mix.

A third option, burning the waste at high temperatures eliminates much if not all of the toxic effluents - one such pilot project was described at Plasma arc waste disposal

What is clear is that unless the rate of waste generation is slowed or reversed, inevitably air and groundwater quality will continue to deteriorate.

Key Quotes:

“next-generation incinerators, known as waste-to-energy plants, have not caught on in the United States, where most garbage is still hauled to distant landfills”

“In the West, landfilling is much cheaper and land is still plentiful…In the Northeast..When you add the cost of transportation to landfilling, waste-to-energy incineration is competitive, but no one wants a plant in their backyard.”

“In 1960, 94 percent, or 2.51 pounds, of the 2.68 pounds of waste..per capita, per day ended up in landfills or non-energy-producing incinerators. In 2008, 54 percent, or 2.43 pounds, of every 4.5 pounds ..each day were handled in that fashion. The percent of garbage being buried is going down, while the amount has gone up.”

"Burning garbage is a primary source of cancer-causing dioxins and other pollutants that enter the food supply..Produces more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than coal power… Due to its low calorific value, burning garbage to produce energy is highly inefficient”

“The environmental and public health benefits of using waste-to-energy facilities, particularly in congested urban areas, far outweigh transporting trash to landfill sites several hundred miles away.”

“New York is achieving a paltry 20 percent recycling rate of its mixed household waste…San already achieving an impressive 72 percent recovery rate through aggressive recycling, reuse, and composting programs.
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