Trash: cheap energy or heap of trouble?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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.