Putting Out the Garbage

Interesting place, America.

Each year we bury over 400 million tons of municipal garbage. Over a ton per person. Forty pounds a week for every one of us, out to the curb. At the same time, we’re publicly and politically in a dither over alternative energy sources. How much sense does it make to dig holes in America and shove garbage into them? Decomposing, it leaches into the groundwater or escapes as methane.

A lot of what we pitch out (plastic and such) is, essentially, here with us forever. We’re creating a sort of kitchen-sink time capsule for the survivors of our species to dig up in future millennia and ponder.

Meanwhile, over in good old decadent, outmoded, backward and irrelevant Europe, according to a recent article by Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times;

Waste incineration plants “have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark, from wealthy exurbs . . . to Copenhagen’s downtown area. Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting carbon dioxide emissions.”

Yeah, been there, done that. Who wants a smoky old garbage-burner in their neighborhood?

“The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.”

New York City, meantime, trucks ten thousand tons of garbage a day to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and as far as South Carolina. Who could possibly have imagined that a Hefty Bag, dragged to the curb on West 115th Street would take a vacation it’s creator would envy, to the sunny South?

So, essentially, we in America are spending money, while the Danes reduce their costs, as well as their dependency on oil and gas. They make money and lower costs, while we pay for expensive trucking. Hmmm. Something going on there that’s worth learning.

All is not rotten in Denmark.

“Denmark now has 29 such plants, serving 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people, and 10 more are planned or under construction. Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the pack in expanding them and building new ones.

“By contrast, no new waste-to-energy plants are being planned or built in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says — even though the federal government and 24 states now classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies.”

How does that happen?

From a ‘follow-the-money’ perspective, who profits and who loses by the high cost of landfill disposal? In 2008, NYC spent one and a quarter billion dollars to collect and dispose of its garbage, including $400 million to truck it away and not a penny was returned for the trouble. The booty is divided among national hitters such as Houston’s Waste Management, Inc. and a plethora of mob related haulage companies.

Waste-wise we’re caught in a wasteland of state and local rules, political payoffs, industry clout and endlessly complicated zoning variations. The ‘not in my backyard’ mentality has deep roots and is not at all helped by the growing (and justified) distrust of politicians.

Meanwhile, we lay out the dough to haul it all away, instead of getting something back–but hey–it’s only heat and light. There may be no free lunch in this world, but it’s a shame to get stuck with the bill when you never even sat down at the table.

Don’t want an energy generating incinerator in your neighborhood? Think again:

HORSHOLM, Denmark — The lawyers and engineers who dwell in an elegant enclave here are at peace with the hulking neighbor just over the back fence: a vast energy plant that burns thousands of tons of household garbage and industrial waste, round the clock. . . Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago. . . With all these innovations, Denmark now regards garbage as a clean alternative fuel rather than a smelly, unsightly problem. And the incinerators, known as waste-to-energy plants, have acquired considerable cachet as communities like Horsholm vie to have them built.

Lawyers and engineers in agreement . . . a sort of miracle in itself. In America, the main waste disposal sticking points are among lawyers, litigating to death any profitable (and meaningful) attempt to progress along a path that’s supportive to energy independence.

This one lowers the cost of municipal garbage pickup, gives you heat, provides light and lowers your taxes.

What’s not to like?

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