One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Electricity

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Electricity

By Spencer Rogers


| In an age of Black Friday stampedes and never-ending Apple releases it’s pretty safe to say that Paris Hilton isn’t the only one with way too much stuff. As we fastidiously seek to satisfy our insatiable appetites for the newest gadgets and hottest trends, America’s landfills are overflowing with the remnants of Christmas’s past. And considering each American produces roughly 4.4 pounds of garbage a day, and bearing in mind that landfills produce over 18% of all U.S. methane emissions, or roughly 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions, it’s pretty clear that landfills are not a viable housing solution for our future, old junk.

Famous for their progressive style of governance, Sweden’s waste disposal policies are truly ingenious. Already sporting one of the world’s highest recycling rates, 47% of total household waste, the Nordic country’s increasing use of waste-to-energy plants means that only about 1% of their total household waste ever reaches a landfill.  – If you’re wondering, 54% of our trash sits in landfills. In fact, Swedes have gotten so efficient at turning garbage into energy that they are now importing over 800,000 tons of trash per year – ridding other countries of their waste while increasing their own energy production.

For those unfamiliar with waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, here’s how they work: The plants collect waste that is then sorted – separating recyclables and non-recyclables. The non-recyclables are then incinerated, and the steam produced from the burning waste is used to power turbines that produce electricity. (Check out this link for a more thorough understanding of the process)

At this point you must be asking yourself – yes, but isn’t burning so much waste tremendously detrimental to the environment? Not according to the EPA, who has classified WTE as clean energy. While it’s true that burning trash does release harmful byproducts, mainly CO2, many of these byproducts would have been naturally released into the atmosphere over time. Additionally, the Swedes have mastered cleaning the burning waste’s emissions – studies show that only about 1/3 of WTE CO2 emissions can be ascribed to fossil fuels. This means that the WTE’s real CO2 emissions rating of 986 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour is on par with natural gas and less than half that of coal.

The energy produced from WTE’s is not insignificant either. Waste-to-energy plants currently produce over 8.5% of Sweden’s total electricity and 20% of their district heating – that’s enough electricity to provide heating to over 950,000 homes and electricity to another 260,000.

Goran Skoglund, a spokesperson for one of Sweden’s leading energy companies, helps to put these numbers in perspective.

“A good number to remember is that three tons of waste contains as much energy as one ton of fuel oil… so there is a lot of energy in waste,”

This means that the over 2 million tons of household waste Sweden burns each year produce the amount of energy equivalent to over 670,000 tons of oil.

These numbers should be staggering to a country who, seemingly, has adopted an oil based economy. Consider this, the United States produces over 251 million tons of trash a year, sending over 135,000,000 tons of it to landfills. This means that our unsustainable dumping may be causing us to miss out on the equivalent of over 45,000,000 tons of fuel oil energy a year.

While these numbers are extremely elevated due to America’s inefficient recycling practices- only around 30% of our waste is recycled and much of the waste headed to landfills surely contains tons of recyclable materials – they help to explain the broader issue. Instead of burying our country in garbage, we could be using the garbage to help fuel our ever-growing need for energy.

Although most conservatives only know Sweden as the land of socialism (wink, wink), I think everyone can agree on increasing environmentally friendly, domestically produced energy. Increasing WTE should be an issue that can help bridge Washington’s partisan divide. It appears that increasing America’s energy production is only a trash can away. It’s true – one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure.

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