To Burn or Not to Burn?: The Waste-to-Energy Question

Whether 'tis better to incinerate municipal wastes and generate electricity or to recycle and save materials is a hot topic

EVEN trash has a role in President Bush's national energy strategy. The plan calls for energy from the burning of municipal solid waste to increase seven-fold within two decades. The mountain of solid waste grew in the United States to 180 million tons in 1988, the most recent figure available. More than 16 percent of last year's waste was incinerated at 130 plants, reducing the amount sent to landfills and generating 2,000 megawatts of electricity.

That's enough to light 1.1 million homes and save 73,500 barrels per day of crude oil, according to the Institute of Resource Recovery, the trade association of builders, owners, and operators of waste-to-energy facilities.

If another 94 such facilities now under construction or being planned go into operation, one-third of US municipal waste will be converted to energy, saving 160,000 barrels per day of oil, the IRR says.

But the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates recycling, says trash is more valuable as raw material than as fuel.

One ton of paper, says Ingrid Komar, the ILSR's media coordinator, takes 6,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity to make from virgin timber, 1,600 kWh to recycle, and yields only 600 kWh when burned. Paper is 41 percent of the waste stream.

But Michael Davis, the assistant secretary of energy for conservation, said in congressional testimony that ``incinerating can produce more energy than recycling can save.''

The answer varies according to the material in question, says Kent Burton, director of the IRR in Washington. For instance, there's no energy value in glass (8 percent of the waste stream) or in metal (9 percent). But those materials can be recycled.

``It's difficult to conceive, but if there were markets for 100 percent of waste - terrific,'' Mr. Burton says. But he points out that New York's recycling program is costing its department of sanitation $273 per ton, far higher than the cost of sending the material to a landfill.

``By golly, recycling costs money, too,'' he says people are realizing.

While the ILSR says that recycling and waste-to-energy programs compete for the same trash and are therefore incompatible, the IRR says they can complement each other.

Nowadays, most communities are taking an approach to waste management that integrates landfill, recycling, and waste-to-energy, Burton says.

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