Is the next energy revolution hiding in your trash can?

Waste reclamation is still a small business in the US, but considering how much trash Americans keep generating, advocates see tremendous potential to grow.

The oldest sources of fuel were wood and animal dung, followed by coal, oil, solar, and wind—we can now add trash to the mix.

A recent report from Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center argues that turning garbage into energy solves two problems: growing landfills and our ever-increasing use of energy.

A Simple Idea

It all started with a simple idea. If we can turn oil into plastic, why can’t we turn plastic back into oil?

It’s not only possible, it’s happening all over the country. In 13 states and the District of Columbia, more than 10 percent of the plastic waste is converted into different kinds of fuel: synthetic oil, synthetic gas (“syngas”), steam, and electricity.

The work is done in waste-to-energy plants, many of them powered by waste products. The power plants’ own waste product is steam, which some—including many in Denmark—have captured and used to heat houses.

If all the trash that ended up in landfills went to these waste-to-energy plants instead, it could generate enough electricity to power one out of every eight households in the United States, according to the report, and the steam could heat another 9.8 million homes.

Waste reclamation is still a small business in the United States, but considering how much trash Americans keep generating, advocates recognize tremendous growth potential. In 2011,  84 waste-to-energy plants in the United States converted about four million tons of plastic into energy. Nickolas J. Themelis and Charles Mussche, authors of the Columbia University report, say that every ton of trash combusted in modern waste-to-energy power plants replaces almost half a ton of coal. Diverting trash to power plants could reduce coal mining by about 100 million tons per year—about 10 percent of domestic coal production.

According to Themelis and Mussche, simply extracting non-recyclable plastic out of the trash in landfills could save the equivalent of 48 million tons of coal, or 180 million barrels of oil each year.

Many states import coal from their neighbors even as they are shipping trash to out of state landfills the report notes. Converting their own trash into energy could reduce coal imports—and in a few cases, stop it entirely: New York, California, Indiana, New Jersey, and Michigan all send more energy (read: trash) to landfills than they import as coal. Nationally, the use of waste-generated fuel instead of coal could reduce the US state-to-state transportation of coal by 22 percent, say the researchers.

California currently imports almost 2 million tons of coal each year; this could be eliminated by routing just 15 percent of the state’s trash away from landfills to waste-to-energy plants.

The United States remains inconsistent embracing waste-to-energy options. More than half of all states don’t yet combust any of their trash, while others have invested heavily in the new technology. Connecticut leads the pack, converting two out of every three pounds of trash into energy. The District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Maine burn between a quarter and a half of their waste, while 29 states do no combustion at all, just piling their trash into landfills.

Themelis and Mussche note in their report that landfills grow by more than 6,000 acres annually—the equivalent of seven Central Parks in size. Isn’t it time to stop throwing away energy?


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