January 10, 2011

"Garbage, garbage, garbage"

 WTE facility in Portsmouth, VA
". . . What will we do when we have no place left to put all the garbage."

That was the refrain in Pete Seeger's song about garbage in the 1960s. It came to mind when I read an article on the Waste Age website about waste-to-energy (WTE) plants in the U.S. Why don't we have more of them as our country looks for renewable energy? Garbage will always be renewable (although not in the traditional meaning of the word), and there certainly are better places for it than landfills. Why isn't is used more as a fuel in power plants?

In the photo at the right is Southeastern Public Service Authority's WTE facility in Portsmouth, VA., that features a power plant that burns refuse-derived fuel (RDF) that is produced in an adjacent plant.

Of the 89 WTE facilities in the United States, 10 produce refuse-derived fuel. In these facilities, waste that has already been sorted for recyclables is processed again to recover additional non-combustible recyclables such as metals and glass. Using RDF in more electrical plants or industrial boilers is a way to increase the use of alternative fuels and increase recycling.

That's where curbside recycling programs and power plants can complement each other, especially if their states have set 20 percent of their demand from renewable resources by 2020 [Virginia has only set voluntary goals.]

Some folks might argue that burning garbage is an activity we USED TO DO and that's it's a dirty practice. Recycling and "source reduction" (as in reduced packaging ) are higher in the pecking order, and in front of combusion for energy. They need to be done first. But last is landfilling the stuff. Recycling and WTE can coexist.

A substantial number of facilities were built in the 1970s and 1980s, but no new RDF production facilities at WTE plants have been built in the United States since 1996.  Some were converted to burn biomass such as wood chips.

The U.K. and E.U countries have many refuse-derived fuel projects. In Slough, England, a coal-fired power station was converted in 2001 to co-fire coal with biomass and non-recyclable waste. A Canadian plant has a 200,000 tons-per-year MSW facility in Ontario, which began operating in the summer of 2008.

In the meantime, the coal and gas industries in the U.S. must be spending more on lobbyists than Waste Management and BFI.  And Pete Seeger's fears about garbage not being diverted from landfills has come to fruition.