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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.


Recycling Coal Ash October 6, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in coal ash, recycling.


Albeit indirectly, Lesley Stahl’s segment of 60 Minutes (4 October 2009), reposted by CommonDreams.org raises two issues that, in my opinion, are very important. The first point is that recycling coal ash is not the panacea that the power industry would like it to be. I believe that the U.S. environmental movement has pushed the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” to such an extent that many people believe that most things we use can be recycled. This is not so and coal ash is an example of why everything we use can not be reused or recycled.

There are two great metaphors for the way we think about time: arrows, or time with direction; and cycles, time that endlessly repeats itself. When these two metaphors are combined, we have a realistic way to think about time–cyclic repetition with a difference. The 60 Minute piece brings to my mind the need to focus not preferentially on the cycles of time (and change) but the direction of changes as well. If we do this, we might have a positive and enduring approach to environmental change.

The second point passes in the moment when Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the U.S. EPA, states that she has no data that indicate the safety of certain products made with coal ash (e.g. school room carpeting). The good news embedded in Jackson’s statement is that the Precautionary Principle appears to be Jackson’s point of departure. This is a major change from the way that U.S. society has approached environmental risk in the past, when proof of harm falling on the shoulders of victims was the starting point for changed environmental regulations. Her statement indicates that the Obama Administration is shifting instead to proof of safety being borne by those who advocate “beneficial reuse” of  purportedly innocuous substances before they are ‘repurposed’.