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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Suffering from Eurotrash Envy

Posted by on Tue, Apr 13, 2010 at 10:03 AM

The NYTimes has an article on trash-burning energy plants that convert waste it into heat and electricity so efficiently that residential fireplaces and barbecues produce more air pollutants than the plants themselves. They also reduce energy costs, reduce dependence on foreign gas and oil, and cause less harm to the environment than landfills. Their presence in communities has even raised property values.

And they're popular in Europe. Here's why America doesn't want them:

Matt Hale, director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, said the reasons that waste-to-energy plants had not caught on nationally were the relative abundance of cheap landfills in a large country, opposition from state officials who feared the plants could undercut recycling programs and a “negative public perception.” In the United States, individual states and municipalities generally decide what method to use to get rid of their waste.

Still, a 2009 study by the E.P.A. and North Carolina State University scientists came down strongly in favor of waste-to-energy plants over landfills as the most environmentally friendly destination for urban waste that cannot be recycled. Embracing the technology would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution, but also yield copious electricity, it said.

Yet powerful environmental groups have fought the concept passionately. “Incinerators are really the devil,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Meanwhile, Seattle freights its garbage to Oregon where it rots and produces methane, then the city buys the methane back to use as an energy source. According to a 2009 EPA study, however, these landfills "churn out roughly twice as much climate-warming gas as waste-to-energy plants do." Not only do the European plants produce less air pollutants than methane-emitting landfills, they also produce nine times the energy.

Fuck Oregon. We should ship our trash to Europe instead.


Comments (22) RSS

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Or you could ship it to Spokane
Posted by In The 509 on April 13, 2010 at 10:12 AM · Report this
OuterCow 2
The best argument against State's Rights is when they’re objectively this stupid in the face of convincing evidence. Time for Congress to give the EPA the authority to mandate these or some such action.
Posted by OuterCow on April 13, 2010 at 10:15 AM · Report this
gember 3
I'm not sure what the random bolding is ever about, but the bad reputation of incinerators stems from incinerator technology of old being pretty bad, before we learned about preventing dioxin release and whatnot. The state of the art is now much better.

Granted, I don't think we make good/rational choices about risk as a nation; we're still burning coal to produce electricity.
Posted by gember on April 13, 2010 at 10:22 AM · Report this
The incinerators really aren't that clean--especially when you rely on Americans to figure out what's safe to discard that way. And you still have to dispose of the ash in a landfill. Fortunately, the other thing that we have that Europe doesn't is bentonite, an amazing clay that we can use for landfill liners. They have the better roads but we have the better landfills. And our landfills will be around longer than their roads.
Posted by PACAY on April 13, 2010 at 10:26 AM · Report this
How about not producing the trash in the first place?
Posted by lrb on April 13, 2010 at 10:31 AM · Report this
meanie 6
Religious environmentalists will sink this country right along with the tea-baggers. Incinerators, and nuclear have changed a lot in 40 years. But you can't convince the prius owning vegan cloth bag crowd because they *just know* these things are evil.
Posted by meanie on April 13, 2010 at 10:31 AM · Report this
Fnarf 7
@3, they claim to scrub or filter out dioxins and other toxics.

That gal from the NYPIRG has never heard of "the perfect is the enemy of the good", has she? "Our priority is pushing for zero waste", she says. But that's ridiculous on the face of it, no matter how much recycling you do. And in fact cleanly burning waste for electricity IS recycling just as much or more as turning aluminum cans into new aluminum cans or whatever -- all recycling processes use power and generate waste and gases. Laura Haight thinks she's working for "the public" but she is an enemy of the people.
Posted by Fnarf on April 13, 2010 at 10:33 AM · Report this
bearseatbeats 8
“Negative public perception” pretty much explains why we never get anything done (or half-done in the case of healthcare). Never mind all that "science" stuff that's proven time and again that item X is better than the status quo. By all means, listen to the people who have an axe to grind who tell you that item X will convert your babies into homosexual, grandma-terminating, business-killing cannibals. They know what they're talking about. Wasn't there a time when scientists were actually respected?

Ah, democracy.

Sure burning things to produce energy isn't the ideal solution, but it seems that we're still fixated on unyielding idealism (at the two extremes, unchecked growth vs. environmentalism) when what we really need is immediate pragmatism. It seems like we're going to have to make more choices like this in the future when it comes to climate change and doing something is almost always better than doing nothing or holding out for the "ideal" solution.
Posted by bearseatbeats on April 13, 2010 at 10:35 AM · Report this
Well Fuck Seattle for sending their trash to Oregon.
Posted by Tom on April 13, 2010 at 10:52 AM · Report this
Screw it. Give one of these companies a contract to build a waste-conversion burner, and the moment people see the drop in both their trash and energy costs, they'll flock to it like crows to a pigeon carcass.

Except of course for teh tea-baggers, who will assume pretty much exactly what @8 said...
Posted by COMTE on April 13, 2010 at 10:53 AM · Report this
starsandgarters 11
I don't know about other Americans, but I want the "Mr. Fusion" of Back to the Future Part 2, that ran on beer and old banana peels.
Posted by starsandgarters on April 13, 2010 at 11:00 AM · Report this
I like the fact that our refuse goes to Oregon.

Fuck the Ducks!
Posted by SeMe on April 13, 2010 at 11:09 AM · Report this
Max Solomon 13
Seattle Steam is commissioning a Biomass Boiler, which will generate heat from wood scraps in the City's yard waste bins. It's not garbage, but it is waste.

It's already built - you can see it down on Western @ the University Steps.
Posted by Max Solomon on April 13, 2010 at 11:10 AM · Report this
convert waste it into heat and electricity so efficiently that residential fireplaces and barbecues produce more air pollutants than the plants themselves.

That doesn't seem all that impressive, since it's hard to imagine that anything produces more airborne filth than residential fireplaces.
Posted by Furcifer on April 13, 2010 at 11:13 AM · Report this
You can sum up the problem of America with two sentences from that article:

(1) "Matt Hale, director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, said the reasons that waste-to-energy plants had not caught on nationally were the relative abundance of cheap landfills in a large country, **opposition from state officials who feared the plants could undercut recycling programs** and a “negative public perception.”

and (2) "Many countries that are expanding waste-to-energy capacity, like Denmark and Germany, typically also have the highest recycling rates; only the material that cannot be recycled is burned."

... In other words, us Americans can't do this because we are too busy doing everything so damn well.

Posted by Travis on April 13, 2010 at 11:16 AM · Report this
I always thought the worst part of incinerator was that the ash is toxin concentrate which is really hard to dispose of.
Posted by dwight moody on April 13, 2010 at 11:38 AM · Report this
@14 is correct -- saying that something produces less pollution than an open wood fire isn't saying much.

The main danger from trash burning plants that is hard to mitigate is the particulate pollution. Just as a general matter, the particulate pollution in Europe is much much worse than anyplace I've been in the United States. You get off a train in Glasgow or Paris, the air quality is worse than New York or Chicago -- pretty much anyplace I've been except L.A.

Particulate pollution isn't really a problem from a greenhouse gas perspective, but it's a real problem from a human health angle. It causes all kinds of diseases, including cancer.
Posted by Judah on April 13, 2010 at 11:51 AM · Report this
@7 Exactly. I have to constantly tell people in nuclear power debates that altho nuclear power does create scary waste, the status quo creates tons more and straight into the air or into the water, not isolated in a mountain. Their desire for no waste blinds them from seeing steps towards that.
Posted by kersy on April 13, 2010 at 11:54 AM · Report this
Kathy Lambert on the King County Council has been advocating for a waste to energy plant in King County for the past five years. She has held public discussions on the issue, and you can view the video of that on her website (bottom of the page):

In fact, she's holding another symposium this Friday at the King County Courthouse with an even larger panel of experts from across the US and Europe. It's free and open to the public, so check it out if you're interested.
Posted by WastetoEnergy on April 13, 2010 at 12:04 PM · Report this

More clueless environmentalists. (Laura Haight)

What else is new?
Posted by balmonter on April 13, 2010 at 12:19 PM · Report this
Fnarf 21
@16, as opposed to those same toxins just sort of hanging around, leaching into the soil? Why are concentrated toxin filters harder to dispose of than oceans of toxin-rich trash?
Posted by Fnarf on April 13, 2010 at 12:24 PM · Report this
Why is the USA so far behind other developed countries when it comes to energy and waste management? I think that there is a fundamental incompetence issue here. We should all be forced to recycle and compost as much as possible by law and encouraged to engage in energy efficiency/carbon reduction by incentives. These incinerators sound like an important contribution to a "wedge" model to manage our resources better.
Posted by @murmur55 on April 30, 2010 at 3:48 AM · Report this

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