Garbage: The New Alternative Energy?

by Susanne Siebel


In today’s world of alternative resources, countries such as Denmark and the United States are developing “waste-to-energy” plants to be used to reduce landfills and to create new energy. However, disagreement and controversy keep building up on these new plants…


– Normal garbage disposal consists of large trucks picking up trash. The trucks use up large amounts of gas which is released into the atmosphere. Then, the trucks bring the contents to either a landfill or an incinerator. R Lawrence Swanson [i] states on, “Toxic exhaust of fuel-inefficient, 18-wheeled garbage trucks motoring hundreds of miles to rural landfills are of greater concern than stack emissions from a waste-to-energy plant. On Long Island, some 300 of these vehicles go west every day, hauling about 22 tons each! These vehicles cause wear and tear on highways and are a traffic, public health and environmental hazard. Long hauling garbage isn’t good, no matter how you measure the impact.”

What we do now

In the US, we have enough space for dumping trash into designated blocks of land. Between the cost of the land and the transportation of garbage, it is still cheaper for tax payers to deal with their disposal. Steven Cohen[ii] states on, “In the West, land filling is much cheaper and land is still plentiful. When you add the cost of transportation to land filling, waste-to-energy incineration is competitive, but no one wants a plant in their backyard.” This idea is similar to having wind turbines off the coast of our shores. A wind turbine found in Germany is the biggest in the world and can supply power to 6,000 homes. No matter how powerful alternative energies are, some people would rather not look at them.

Bad Effects of Waste-to-Energy Plants

Ananda Lee Tan[iii] believes that the emissions that the incinerators give off have just as much of an effect as the trucks that are transporting waste to landfills. He states that incineration gives off carcinogens that get into food and it produces more pollutants than coal power. Also, he believes that it will drain tax payers’ money to build and maintain these plants. Furthermore, the use of incinerators would create fewer jobs than landfills. Finally, Tan believes that recycling can produce “Five times more energy” than incinerators can make. Along with Tan, Laura Haight[iv] believes that New York needs to increase its efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. According to Haight, San Francisco has set a goal by 2020 that the city would not send any waste to landfills and incinerators. As of now, the city has a 72% of recovery rate by recycling, reuse and composting. She also believes that incineration is dirty and there are ways around it. Altering the way that we deal with our disposal could set off extreme effects such as more gases being released into the atmosphere. It could be more of a pollutant than the trucks carrying the garbage.

The World Involvement in Lowering Land Filling and Incineration

In other countries around the world, waste disposal has gone down significant amounts. Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, for example, are some of the European leaders in reducing landfills and the use of oil. Denmark has over twenty-nine plants with more in production. These plants are fully up to date and have multiple filters that catch almost all of the toxins such as mercury and dioxide. The reason that plants such as these have not been built in the United States is because: a) people do not want a power plant in their backyard, b) they do not want to pay for it c) the plants currently in the United States are fifteen years old and are not as advanced as these plants, and d) many workers could be laid off from the landfills and incinerators. In a time of creating more jobs for Americans, the plants would lower that hope. As the economy increases, the idea for new technology will increase.

The idea of having garbage be used as a new way of making energy could be the next big innovation.  Even though it has caught on in Europe, Americans are having a harder time with it especially when it comes to the cost of it. No matter what, getting rid of waste has its ups and downs but we, the people of the world, have to find the most eco-friendly way of dealing with our disposal.

[i] Swanson is the director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute, at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University.

[ii] Cohen is executive director the Earth Institute at Columbia University and director of Columbia’s masters programs in Sustainability Management and Environmental Science and Policy.

[iii] Tan is the U.S. and Canada coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

[iv] Haight is senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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