Trash: cheap energy or heap of trouble?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

US cities are finding that turning their garbage into the gold of renewable energy has not been a rags to riches story -- at least, not so far. Although virtually everyone agrees garbage has a future as a renewable energy source, generally much more has been spent on the search than has been picked up in the find. Many of the existing resource-recovery systems have been shut down temporarily, often more than once, for major modifications and repairs.

"There's absolutely no gold in garbage," insists Chris Ganotis of Wheelabrator-Frye Inc., a firm that operates one of the nation's few profitable municipal plants in Saugus, Mass. "It's waste material, and there's a cost associated with getting rid of it.The question is how to do it in the most economical and environmentally responsible way. Energy recovery helps to defray the cost but the problems involved have been vastly underestimated."

Despite such caution, most people agree that there is a strong future ahead for continued efforts to burn and squeeze as much energy as possible out of the 150 million tons of food bits, metal, paper, plastics, rubber, and other materials which Americans throw away every year.

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The reason: other options are markedly few Though there are 14 plants (many of them in California) aimed at recovering methane from landfills, new landfill sites tend to be increasingly costly, controversial, farther from city centers, and subject to ever-stricter environmental regulations.

Few existing resource-recovery plants have actually been abandoned -- in part because of steep initial capital costs. The most common energy offshoot sold is steam, but many produce a dry combustible waste that can be burned with coal or other fuels.Many also sell ferrous metals and some stockpile other leftovers such as glass and ash for possible future commercial use.

According to the National Center for Resource Recovery, a nonprofit environmental research organization, another 49 incinerator-based city or county resource-recovery plants are currently in the formal planning stage. Already, there are 68 operating or soon to be operating plants in the nation.

What's needed to make the new plants work well and the old plants work better , the experts say, is a combination of patience, money, time, and more technological expertise developed through experience.

What fuels these hopes is the successful energy recovery programs in Western Europe, where landfill has long been scarce. Europe's estimated 300 waste-to-energy plants recover almost 50 percent of the energy potential of their refuse. Meanwhile, the US Department of Energy estimates only 1 percent of the energy potential of this country's municipal solid waste is recovered.

Some experts here say the Europeans have had an edge in less strict environmental regulations and in plants that frequently are nationally subsidized. These argue that it is not so much a difference in technology as in national attitude. "In the US," says one, "the feeling about garbage has always been: 'Out of sight, out of mind.'" Another factor is the high percentage of hard-to-burn plastics discarded on this side of the Atlantic, some experts say.

Still, it is expected that America's efforts in time can be just as successful as Europe's. Experts suggest that the technology used here is still new and evolving and that it can take a plant 5 to 10 years just to break even.

The technology "is really at the same point where incinerators were 10 to 15 years ago," concedes Dr. Emil Nigro, supervising engineer for the Chicago Bureau of Sanitation.

"Not all plants are designed right and need to be made to operate more efficiently," adds Kenneth Bruner, who is the manager of the energy recovery plant in Madison, Wis., considered one of the most successful city-owned and operated plants in the country. In his view, after visiting more than a dozen other resource-recovery plants, part of the problem is poor management as shown in the failure to hire the skilled professional people needed.

Many cities also have faced tough marketing problems brought on in part by the nature of their own changing administrations. Any energy buyer usually wants a long-term contract, which some governments have been unable to provide, and a guaranteed steady supply of fuel from a nearby plant before signing on the dotted line.

"I think a few more marketplace successes will serve as a real spur," says Chris Koutz of the Energy Department's Office of Municipal Waste. "Economically these are difficult deals to put together and people have to realize that over the short run they'll probably lose money until energy prices go up more."

Managers of a plant in Akron, Ohio, down since July for modifications and not expected back on track until late 1982, don't expect to make money until other energy options become more expensive than the plant's energy.

Unexpected technological problems have also blocked progress in city resource-recovery efforts. Plants such as those in Hempstead, N.Y., and Bridgeport, Conn., were forced to shut down to curb harmful or foul-smelling chemical emissions.

Several other cities have discovered that the plants they built could not process as much refuse and deliver the resulting energy byproduct as efficiently over distance as they had expected. Chicago's Southwest Supplementary Fuel Processing Plant, for instance, which began operations in 1978, has been shut down for almost two years in an effort to solve combined production and transportation problems.

Some of the more successful ventures in city resource recovery so far involve teaming up with an industry partner who will buy the energy and is located close by. Chicago's Northwest Incinerator, for example, has been burning city refuse for more than a decade but only recently began piping the steam produced in the process to the nearby Brach Candy Company.

Occasionally that industry partner, if brought in from the beginning, may be willing to share in the risk. Regarded as one of the best such arrangements in the country is the 20-year steam sale contract between Salem, Va., and the Mohawk Rubber Company. Mohawk donated the land right next to its tire plant for the resource-recovery facility. Salem also has an agreement with an aluminum company to cull out other materials for recycling and sell them at a shared profit.

"I think we'll see many more situations where private companies and cities work together and help each other out," says Marc Shapiro, director of the Solid Waste Management Program at the National League of Cities.

The debate continues as to how much shredding or sorting of refuse beforehand is wise. In some systems capped perfume bottles and land mines have led to explosions and clogging. But officials of the Saugus, Mass., plant, which serves 18 communities, say they have decided that the less handling of the garbage, the safer and better for everyone concerned. Wheelabrator-Frye's two furnaces there are designed to handle solid waste of every kind.

Mr. Gonitas, who says it is easy to underestimate the safety hazards involved otherwise in shredding or separating materials, claims the Saugus system has successfully burned without incident everything from sofas and water heaters to motorcycles and capped perfume bottles.

Each discovery -- such as Saugus' find that "simpler is better" -- helps other communities still searching for ways to extract some value from the garbage they throw away. While that task is no longer viewed as either easy or lucrative, it is one most communities, facing few other choices, will continue to carefully consider.

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