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Hot or Not: One Way to Clean Up America

“The United States should take notes from Sweden’s environmentally protective waste-conversion initiative. But is the new administration willing to listen?”

By Alex Benedict

     For three decades, since Sweden began to burn its trash to create energy for the country, there has been debate over the system’s efficiency. Many scientists and environmentalists claim that the chemical emissions are harmful, and that it takes an unreasonable amount of energy to achieve the final product. On the other hand, proponents of this waste-to-energy (WTE) method provide evidence of environmentally sound practices with more positive results than classic energy providers like coal and oil. Though there still tends to be pushback, more from big oil firms than dubious scientists, WTE is burning its way to the top and is likely to become one of the most popular methods of reusing and recycling consumer waste.


Scandinavian Trendsetting

     Since 1975, Sweden has worked to increase the amount of waste recycled and has succeeded in doing so – only 38 percent of waste was recycled then, whereas more than 99 percent of all waste produced domestically is recycled today. This drastic increase has provided heat for 810,000 homes and electricity for 250,000 homes. Additionally, homes have shifted their waste-disposal practices to allow for this increase in energy production. In 1998, just over 1 million households relied on landfills as a means of waste disposal and almost 1.5 million homes relied on WTE. In 2007, less than 200,000 homes relied on landfills, whereas almost 2.25 million used WTE practices as means of disposal. Material recycling has also increased by about 1 million homes in those 9 years.

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     In Sweden, one year of burning trash created the same amount of energy as 1.1 million cubic meters of oil, without all of the environmental impacts – carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by at nearly 2.2 million tons per year. The country has actually become so efficient at WTE recycling that there is the threat of running out of trash to burn. So Sweden has made a business out of it – they have begun to handle the trash of their European neighbors for a price of $43 per ton. In 2014, the country made almost $100 million in revenue as a result of the 2.3 million tons of garbage it imported and incinerated.

      Other countries have started to catch on to this trend, starting with Sweden’s Scandinavian siblings. In Norway, one full-capacity plant in Oslo has the ability to provide heat and electricity to 56,000 homes and all of the city’s schools. In Denmark, landfills only take 3% of consumer waste, and the remainder is recycled and incinerated. While these two countries have not quite caught up to Sweden, their annual progress toward the ultimate goal of minimizing landfilled waste is not far off.


Trashy Emissions

     In the last 50 years, recycling initiatives have increased, reducing the total amount of waste brought to landfills. But there is still work to be done, especially in the United States (US), where in 2015, only 7 percent of waste was converted into energy – the remaining 93% was left in landfills, where garbage is encased in clay and plastic and buried under dirt. This casing is not designed to break down waste – both industrial and household – but rather to store it.

     Not only is the landfill system wasted energy, it is also harmful to the environment. Since waste is stored in an oxygen-free space, bacteria in the waste produces methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that every ton of landfill waste converted to energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions by half of a cubic ton. One-third of US landfills have the technology in place to capture these, but even then, less than one-third of the gases are actually captured and converted.

     Though there is also evidence of some negative emissions as a result of trash incineration, many countries have just about perfected a way to convert their waste into energy without negatively affecting the environment. When municipal solid waste (MSW) is burned, less harmful substances are emitted than when trash sits in a landfill. But since they are bound in the ash produced from burning, they are easier to control and easier to recycle further. With the implementation of WTE recycling practices, energy production in Sweden has increased while dioxins released into the air from landfilled trash has significantly decreased.

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What About Recycling?

     When it comes to WTE, not everything can be recycled via incineration. Batteries, light bulbs, and other types of electrical waste, newspapers, and packaging all cannot be converted into energy in this fashion. But this is not to say that they cannot be recycled at all. Electrical waste, newspapers, and packaging are recycled with alternate methods, separate from the burnable trash. Additionally, metals must be sorted out to be melted down separately for reuse. Though this seems like a tedious process, the end result outweighs the intermediary costs.

     While trash burning has become the most popular way to deal with unpopular waste, it is not to say that recycling initiatives have halted. Between 2008 and 2011 in the US, recycling efforts increased by 18.5 million tons, while landfilling decreased by just shy of 23 million tons. This for the most part can be attributed to governmental recycling programs created by the EPA. But with the new administration rolling back environmental initiatives and protections, this progress may stagnate during the next four years.


The Dilemma

In the US, there are five states that are close to achieving a sustainable system of waste management: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Hampshire are combining recycling efforts, composting, and WTE to make them the most environmentally friendly waste managers in the country. The policies enacted in these states are primarily a result of the state’s wealth. There is a strong correlation between poverty and low recycling rates, which can be attributed to the expensive nature of trash collection and recycling initiatives. Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Idaho, and Oklahoma have consistently been some of the poorest states over the last decade, and they are also the worst at recycling, composting, and WTE practices. In all of these states in 2008, less than 10 percent of all waste was either recycled or composted. Alabama and Oklahoma are the only ones of these five states to incinerate waste, and even so it was less than 5 percent.

The same can be said for low-income populations within wealthier states. Based on a study by Columbia University, regions of the country that are less economically prosperous tend to have lower rates of recycling. Specifically, in major cities with high populations of low-income Americans, the use of landfills is not the most economically efficient way to handle waste. In New York City, Harlem and the South Bronx are among the worst neighborhoods at recycling. They are also among the poorest, making recycling initiatives less of a priority.

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     As there will be a need for a large initial investment in capital to convert landfills into WTE plants, the poor states and regions will find it difficult to take the first step. However, the payoff will outweigh the costs in more ways than one. The 6,000 landfills across the country could be converted to WTE plant, and fees from these new centers would be greater than those of landfills, ensuring that there was still incentive to work in them. Additionally, shifting to WTE would have positive effects on public health, reducing global warming emissions, as well as providing more jobs.

     Government agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) have made strides in encouraging national use of renewable energy. A clean energy revolution has been expanding throughout the country since the turn of the 20th century, with the help of both the government and of the private sector. Specifically in the last ten years, President Obama had put into place a Climate Action Plan, outlining ways to combat climate change via shifts towards renewable energy and away from environmentally harmful fossil fuels. The private sector is reliant on policies put into place by the government, so any cuts made to the DOE, specifically its Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), could potentially stagnate any further investment from private firms.


A Cleaner Future?

     By 2050, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) says that renewable energy can provide 80 percent of the electricity in the United States. This includes biopower, concentrating solar power, geothermal power, solar photovoltaics, and wind turbines. When WTE incineration is included in this estimate, the U.S. could reach 80 percent even sooner.

     Despite these efforts, the US has not made notable progress towards renewable energy in any recent administration. Professor E. Donald Elliott of Yale Law School attributes this to the structure of the US government. He breaks the impediments into three categories – fragmented authority, separation of powers, and changing policies. Elliott writes that each individual state’s ability to regulate its energy sources is a foundational problem in the spread of more environmentally-sound practices. Half of the country has invested in WTE technology, but the federal government struggles to encourage this progress on the other half that refuses to prioritize green energy. Additionally, divided political parties and the different branches of government make it difficult to promote renewable energy, since no one party or branch has complete control over the decision and law-making. Lastly, with every election comes an influx of new politicians, new ideas, and new agendas, which oftentimes, as seen with the results of the 2016 presidential election, hinders or reverses progress made on the front of green energy.

     Even though the Obama era was filled with investment in green-energy initiatives, the majority of them wind, water, and solar-based, the administration did not do too much with WTE initiatives, simply because waste management is something run by private firms and state governments. Since the era began in 2008, state governments have worked toward incorporating more WTE into their waste-disposal methods. But with the Trump Era just beginning, more widespread additions of WTE may be hard to accomplish, especially with Congressional and Presidential agendas to take into account.

     President Trump has proposed throughout his campaign and presidency that he would roll back initiatives put in place by President Obama combating climate change. He started this with his nominee for Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, who was once on the board of directors at Energy Transfer Partners, one of the companies behind the construction of the polarizing Keystone XL pipeline – something President Obama halted but Trump reinstated.

The pattern continued and on March 28, Trump issued an executive order rolling back Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which reduces the electricity sector’s carbon footprint. Trump has also said that he would get the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a pact of 197 countries to each marginally reduce their carbon pollution, even though walking away from the agreement would have detrimental effects on the US’s material interests.

     Additionally, Trump has made remarks about how he plans to cut the budget of the EPA and offices of the DOE by almost a third. Evidently, environmental protection, let alone green energy, is not one of the President’s top priorities. Trump has said that there needs to be a trade-off: environmental protection or economic development, not both. But the EERE says that any tampering with the multi-billion dollar renewable energy market could also have economically detrimental consequences. The SunShot initiative, launched during the Obama administration, aims to make solar energy a competitive market by 2020. The budget cuts to the EERE would, of course, be much more than to the DOE’s offices for fossil and nuclear energy.

     While the United States can’t expect to be environmentally progressive in the coming four years, we can still take that extra sliver of thought and put our plastic bottles in the blue bin.



Image source: Flickr

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