A Question of Focus?

WTE facility in Vienna

On April 7, the New York Academy of Sciences hosted a panel discussion called “Trash Talk: Options for Converting Our Solid Waste to Energy.” Nickolas Themelis of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University spoke about the many benefits of waste-to-energy, or WTE technologies. David Demme, with a company called SAIC Energy, Environment & Infrastructure, described a project to build an anaerobic digestion plant in the Bronx at Hunts Point, home to one of the world’s largest wholesale food markets.  Mark Paisley, a chemical engineer from Taylor Biomass Energy, discussed biomass gasification.

All of these use garbage as a source of energy, but in very different ways. In WTE, garbage is burned to generate heat, electricity, or combustion fuels like methane or ethanol. By contrast, anaerobic digestion (AD) creates energy by breaking down organic materials in a process that’s akin to composting, except that it works in the absence of oxygen. Biomass gasification uses garbage (or, as Paisley calls it, “residue”) to create a fuel called “syngas” (for synthetic gas) by breaking carbon-based materials into carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

There is not space here to fully explain the complexities of these technologies (the speakers’ presentation will be available on the NYAS web archive). Each of these systems is sophisticated, controversial, and — as a waste disposal solution — each creates fewer greenhouse gasses and is less damaging to the environment than landfilling.

But here’s the thing.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the nation creates approximately 10 billion — yes, that’s billion with a B — tons of waste annually. It measures municipal solid waste (recycling included) at 243 million tons. But waste, in any form, is tough to tally: according to BioCycle magazine’s most recent count of municipal solid waste (MSW) tonnages, the number is closer to 390 million tons. Regardless of which numbers are correct, MSW makes up a tiny fraction of the larger picture.

While it’s essential to figure out more efficient, less toxic, less harmful ways to dispose of our household garbage, it’s even more important to figure out how to create less of it in the first place. And that concern is secondary to a still more important concern: how to focus public and political attention on the vast quantities of industrial, agricultural, mining, hazardous, and electronic wastes that are largely unseen, unacknowledged, and far too lightly regulated but that are generated in quantities that far outweigh even the most liberal estimates of MSW totals.

So I have a question about the NYAS “Trash Talk” discussion.

While we’re figuring out how to make relatively clean energy from trash, shouldn’t we also always simultaneously be trying to figure out how to overcome political resistance to deeper scrutiny of all those other, larger waste forms?

2 thoughts on “A Question of Focus?

  1. While all of these new and innovative processes have their own merit, the facilities such as biomass gasification or anerobic digestion if built will handle a small quantity of waste. In addition, the politics of siting and permitting similar facilities is time consuming. The public at large is not receptive to any waste facilities in their neighborhood. A City the size of New York would have to site a great number of these facilities to handle all of the City’s waste. It should be noted that the last waste transfer station that was put in operation in New York City took eight years to complete the permit process.

    • Interesting points; thanks for your comment! Problems of scale, as a sociologist colleague of mine points out, are essential but often overlooked concerns when trying to address these issues.

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