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The New Green: Waste-to-energy still wasteful

By Kelsey Sullivan
On November 30, 2012

The Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority, the state's major handler of recyclables and waste, proudly boasts that 80 percent of the refuse it collects is burned in one of the state's waste-to-energy plants and converted into electricity. The CRRA notes that burning trash (which leaves only ash to be landfilled) saves 90 percent of the space that would have been taken up in landfills without burning. The state has wholeheartedly adopted this process, and the CRRA proclaims on its website that "when the Windsor-Bloomfield landfill closes, which could happen as soon as 2015, Connecticut will be the first state in the union with no active garbage landfills."
But is burning garbage truly a way to go green? There is certainly great potential for trash as a national energy source. According to an article published last year by CNET, every U.S. citizen produces nearly one ton of trash after recycling per year, which some experts have speculated would translate into enough electricity to run 8 million homes. In some states, burning trash is even classified as a renewable energy source, because the inflow of rubbish from towns and cities is never-ending and constant. Europe has taken this view and has bounded ahead of the U.S. in constructing waste-to-energy plants, with about 400 plants already completed (compared to only 87 in the U.S.).
However, many environmental groups have expressed opposition to the construction of new waste-to-energy facilities. Investing in these projects may divert money and time away from developing sophisticated recycling and composting systems.
Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group, explained in a 2010 New York Times article: "Incinerators are really the devil. Investing in garbage as a green resource is simply perverse when governments should be mandating recycling. Once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you then have to feed it. Our priority is pushing for zero waste."
Others argue that reducing waste should not be targeted at the end of a product's life-cycle, but instead manufacturers should be pinned with the responsibility for designing products that can be easily recycled or biodegradable. In addition to these concerns, burning garbage inevitably contributes to air pollution; releasing compounds such as mercury, dioxin, and sulfur and nitrogen oxides.
Still, advocates argue that new technologies have greatly reduced the amount of air pollutants released by waste-to-energy plants, and that the plants are still far cleaner than traditional trash incinerators. In densely populated areas like the East Coast, they may become our only option as open space for landfills disappears.
 


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