Waste to Energy Programs – Garbage In, Energy Out?

Storgarten, Sweden (source: Åsa Grip)

I recently read that Sweden is importing trash from neighboring Norway to use in their waste-to-energy power plants. Sweden puts about 4% of its trash in the landfill, and the other 96% is recycled or incinerated to produce energy. Over a quarter million homes get electricity from this program, and 20% of the country’s heating needs are also covered.

The problem is that Sweden has so little trash that it is running out of fuel for its energy needs. It is expensive to burn trash in Norway, so they pay Sweden to import and burn it. The ash, which has a fraction of the volume, gets returned to Norway to go into the landfill. Sounds like a win/win to me, especially if European countries get involved.

Places like Italy and Lithuania don’t have recycling and incineration programs, so all their trash has to go to the landfill. Land for garbage is limited, and it’s a crisis. Sweden and Europe could create a similar agreement like the one with Norway. The volume of trash in landfills would be reduced in one part of the region, and homes would be powered and heated in another.

Waste to energy – what about reduction?

My only beef with this is that it takes trash to make power. Trash is dependent on consumption. Reducing consumption, especially of new goods, is the goal of many individuals, cities and countries in an effort to reduce emissions and minimize carbon footprints. It is key to more eco-friendly lifestyles and business models.

Waste-to-energy seems to be the opposite of less consumption. If every country in the world were zero waste, how would homes get powered? That’s an exaggeration, but I’m sure you see my point.

Strive for zero waste, or more fuel to burn?

I’m not saying trying to zero waste is bad. It’s honorable. I have very little trash at home, because I recycle, upcycle, compost, shop second hand, fix things, use old clothes as rags and so on. Manufacturers need to strive for zero or little waste in creating, packaging and shipping products, too. There is a lot of waste in the supply chain of every new item on a store shelf or showroom. This is probably more important than residential waste, just due to the potential volume.

But zero waste and waste-to-energy don’t seem to go hand-in-hand, as witnessed by the problem in Sweden. It’s sort of a catch 22. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Less consumption equals less trash. More consumption equals more trash, which means abundant fuel.

Waste to energy advantages and drawbacks

So which is better? Zero waste or power plants using waste as fuel?

The drawbacks to waste-to-energy programs are few, aside from the consumption issue.

  • There are CO2 emissions associated with incineration.
  • The trash may not be sorted, meaning toxic items may be getting burned. Heavy metals and other airborne particulates may be released.
  • Workers in these power plants need to be highly skilled. That is a small labor pool.
  • Plants are expensive to build.

The benefits of waste-to-energy programs might outweigh the drawbacks, though. You decide.

  • It’s renewable.
  • It can keep up to 90% of trash out of landfills.
  • Trash can be sorted to recycle or throw out items not fit for burning.
  • Local homes and businesses get power.
  • Power plants take up less space than landfills.

A tough call

It’s a tough call, but there will always be trash. I can’t imagine a world where everything is recycled or reused, or where there is no waste in construction and manufacturing. This all sounds so simplified, but when you think about reusing as much as possible, that leaves little left over as waste.

What caught my eye about the situation in Sweden, though, was that they produce so little trash to begin with. Swedes are very tidy people with a deep respect for and consciousness about their environment. That’s a problem all countries should have!

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