It is an urban crisis that lacks drama. Rarely does it gain the attention of the media, which concentrate on the more explosive environmental problems of air , water, and toxic waste pollution. But the "garbage crisis" is very real, and most of our major metropolitan areas are experiencing it. It is likely to grow worse in the coming decade. Our cities are simply running out of land for the disposal (landfilling) of garbage.
The quantity of garbage, or municipal solid waste, Americans throw away is astronomical. We compromise only 5 percent of the world's population, yet we produce more than half the world's solid waste, disposing of some 160 million tons annually.
In the United States most of it is buried in landfills. For a number of cities, landfills reached capacity by the mid-1970s. New landfill sites were too expensive to purchase or too far away to be economically practical. And landfilling garbage created serious pollution problems in some areas, such as the contamination of groundwater systems which supply drinking water. In the 1980s, it will become increasingly difficult for cities to locate new landfill sites because of these factors.
Landfill shortage has been a problem for the densely populated nations of Western Europe for decades. Several, including Denmark, Switzerland, and West Germany, have solved it by burning their garbage in incinerators and recapturing the steam to heat and cool buildings or to generate electricity.
In the United States the "garbage crisis" followed on the heels of the "energy crisis." To some American communities, the European systems appeared attractive. Not only could we rid ourselves of tons of solid waste, but we simultaneously could extract the most important resource of all to our society: energy. Thus, the first waste-to-energy, or resource recovery, facilities were planned in the early 1970s.
No one would argue that solid waste will ever replace fossil fuels as basic energy resources, but its energy potential is significant. A 1979 General Accounting Office report stated that the United States "could realize an energy savings equivalent of more than 100,000 barrels of oil daily" as early as 1985 if the 131 waste-to-energy plants now operating, under construction, or in planning are all in service by that year.
Two of the "pioneer" communities which built waste-to-energy facilities were Ames, Iowa, and Saugus, Mass. Both began operations in 1976 and are now working at capacity.
The Ames facility converts 200 tons of garbage each day into a fuel which is burned by a local utility to generate electricity. The Saugus plant converts 1, 100 tons of garbage per day collected into steam which is purchased by a General Electric plant for heating, cooling, and generating electricity. In four years of operations, the Saugus facility has generated an energy savings equivalent to more than one million barrels of oil. Both plants save additional energy and raw materials through the recovery of steel cans for recycling. (Magnets separate the steel scrap from garbage.)
It is unfortunate that waste-to-energy plants seem to draw publicity only when they fail, either technically or financially. But successful plants are operating in Madison, Wis.; Nashville; Chicago; and Harrisburg, Pa., among other communities. And scores of other cities, ranging in size from New York to Opelika, Ala., are planning to build them in the coming decade.
The 1979 GAO report called municipal solid waste "a virtually inexhaustible domestic energy resource." But it is an energy source with a catch to it. If we fail to tap it, it will continue to burden us with a host of disposal problems. The logic for con verting solid waste to energy stands strong.