Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 05.13.13
Just Outside Washington


Garbage Use: A No-brainer

The U.S. generates 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) per year (EPA, 2010). This trash from residential and commercial waste generator and includes 35 million tons of yard waste and 34 million tons of food waste. It does not include industrial waste or construction and demolition waste.

EPA says that in 2010 we recycled 65 million tons of MSW, composted 20 million tons, and burned 29 million tons for energy recovery. The waste burned for energy was burned in 86 power plants mostly in the eastern half of the country. The Washington area has three.

The 86 power plants produce a total of 2,500 MW of electricity or enough for 2.1 million homes. The rest of the MSW, 135 M tons, was dumped in holes in the ground, otherwise known as landfills. There are 1,908 of these. So, for example, New York City, which has no landfills, exports 12,000 tons of MSW per day by barge, rail and truck to landfills in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.

If the MSW currently land filled, using the 2010 numbers, was converted to energy in waste power plants, they would generate enough energy for an additional 9 million homes. Because, approximately half of the MSW is composed of organic matter, that half is considered a renewable energy fuel. Renewable energy fuels are regarded as carbon neutral and do not contribute to global warming. Burning the fuel releases carbon into the atmosphere and growing the organic matter takes carbon out of the atmosphere and therefore it is carbon neutral.

So why don't we burn more of the MSW for energy?

One reason is that the power plants are expensive -- for , the new 95 MW plant being constructed in Palm Beach, FL will cost $668 million to construct. Second, some people are concerned about pollution because when anything is burned there are emissions. However, the waste power plants must meet stringent environmental standards and are strictly monitored.

EPA's analysis models show that the environmental impact from the waste power plants is less than if the waste is land filled even with recovery of the landfill methane.

The key reason, that we do not burn waste for energy, is that landfills are cheap. Finally, there is always the ‘not in my back yard’ factor.

On the positive side, to construct power plants to burn 135 million tons of MSW would create 65,000 construction jobs during their two-year construction periods. Also, once constructed approximately 8,000 permanent operational jobs would be created. The operation of these power plants would reduce the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere by 154 million tons per year, thus reducing global warming. This is because the power plants would produce less carbon than the current landfills and the trucks that take the MSW to them.

It looks like a no brainer to me.