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Household Garbage to Energy April 13, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth community, fossil fuel, incinerators, landfills, municipal waste (household garbage), recycling.
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Today’s New York Times article (“Europe Finds Cleaner Energy from Trash) explains how incinerators that burn household garbage, ones that are much cleaner than conventional incinerators, are being used to turn local trash into heat and electricity for neighborhood homes in Denmark. Multiple filters on these incinerators trap toxic pollutants such as mercury and dioxin. Over the last ten years, these plants have become the main means of garbage disposal and an important source of fuel in areas of varied land use and economic class.  Use of these incinerators has minimized the country’s need for fossil fuels for energy and has reduced the use of landfills, thus diminishing the country’s carbon emissions. In Denmark, garbage is a clean alternative to fuel, not a disposal problem.

It’s a remarkable story and one that seems a good tribute by which to acknowledge today’s release of Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Living on a Tough New Planet. Bill McKibben, author of more than a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989), perhaps the first book for the layperson about climate change, and founder of 350.org, a global warming awareness campaign that coordinated what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” has devoted much energy to rallying awareness about climate change.

In Eaarth, McKibben argues that humans have changed Earth in such fundamental ways that it is no longer the planet on which human civilization developed over the past 10,000 years. Seawater is becoming acidic as oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere; the cryosphere—Earth’s once frozen realms of ice caps and high mountain glaciers—has melted or is in the process of doing so; tropical regions of the globe have pushed two degrees further north and south changing patterns of rainfall and causing droughts, fires and floods. It’s a new planet he says, hence Eaarth, not Earth and we’ve got to wake up and start living on it differently.

What to do? Steer away from the path of insatiable growth that has caused Earth to morph into Eaarth, says McKibben. “Scale back” and “hunker down.” Create communities that concentrate on the essentials of maintenance rather than the spoils of growth.  He provides inspirational examples of neighborhood windmills, provincial currencies, corner markets, and local internet communities to jump-start this endeavor.

Let’s add to his list of changed behaviors, the use of Danish garbage incinerators. Today’s New York Times article notes that no new waste-to-energy plants are planned for the United States, even though the federal government and twenty-four states currently classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel. We have 87 trash-burning power plants in the U.S., almost all built at least 15 years ago. Right now, we send most of our garbage to landfills. New York City sends 10,500 tons of residential garbage to Ohio and South Caroline every day. Why? The worst trend in traditional environmentalism is responsible for this situation. Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ism.

As McKibben urges in Eaarth, it’s time for a change folks. In Denmark, garbage to energy plants are placed deliberately in the communities they serve so that the heat of burning garbage can be most efficiently sent to homes. In the community highlighted in the NYT article, Horsholm, 80% of the heat and 20% of the electricity comes from burning trash. As a result, homeowners’ bills as well as carbon dioxide emissions are lower.

It’s this type of thought and action that Mckibben urges us towards in Eaarth, an inspiring read.

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