PORTLAND, Maine – America remains full of trash as new cases of the coronavirus decline, and that has rekindled a debate about the sustainability of incinerating for energy.
Waste-to-energy plants, which generate most of their electricity by incinerating garbage, only make up about half a percent of electricity generation in the United States. But the plants have long met with considerable resistance from environmentalists and local residents, who see the plants as polluters. Eyesores and malodor generators.
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The industry is in retreat mode in the United States as dozens of plants have closed due to resistance and emissions concerns since 2000. However, industry members said they see the surge in garbage production in the US in recent months as an opportunity to play a bigger role in power generation and fighting climate change by keeping waste out of methane-generating landfills.
According to an estimate by the Solid Waste Association of North America, the amount of municipal waste this spring has increased by up to 8% compared to the previous spring. And there is even more rubbish on the way. According to a 2020 study in Science magazine, the global plastic packaging market is expected to grow from more than $ 900 billion in 2019 to more than $ 1 trillion by 2021, largely due to the pandemic response.
That junk has to go somewhere, and it makes more sense to use it as a resource than to throw it in landfills, said James Regan, senior director of corporate communications at Covanta, the largest player in the industry. The company processes about 20 million tons of waste a year to power about a million households, and it could do more, he said.
“If we are to achieve the climate goals by 2050, the waste sector can and should really be part of that story,” said Regan. “It's a low hanging fruit. So what are we waiting for?”
Waste-to-energy plants are expanding in other parts of the world. More than 120 systems have been built in the last five years. They are most concentrated in Europe and Asia. But the most recent new facility in the US opened in Palm Beach County, Florida in 2015.
President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has made reducing carbon emissions and creating more renewable energy a priority, and while that push has focused heavily on wind and solar power, the government has also recognized a place for generating energy from waste conversion. The White House said in an April statement that the US “can fight carbon pollution from industrial processes” by adding waste-to-power to the mix.
Any attempt to build more plants in the United States. will face opposition, said Mike Ewall, director of the Philadelphia Energy Justice Network in Philadelphia. The plants pose a threat to human and environmental health as they release chemicals like mercury and dioxin, he said. Municipalities have also spoken out against waste incineration plants because of concerns about particulate matter in the air, which can have negative health consequences.
“The idea that this industry is going to build new equipment is just ridiculous,” said Ewall.
But the fact is that the generation of waste has increased and the municipalities have to deal with it somehow. A study published in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability attributed the increase to factors such as panic buying and increased reliance on single-use items. Medical waste has also increased due to heavy use of personal protective equipment, the study found.
As the pandemic subsided in many parts of the country and the economy reopened, commercial waste has increased, but municipal waste generation has not slowed. In Portland, Maine, municipal waste increased 12% and commercial waste increased 2% in June, said Matt Grondin, spokesman for ecomaine, which operates a waste-to-energy plant.
Turning all of the new garbage into energy is the best option available, Grondin said.
“It's a lot of junk. You can probably imagine a lot of people cleaning up their homes, doing projects, that's a lot of the increase,” he said. “It has to go somewhere.”
Other communities have viewed garbage-to-gas production as a way to get energy from increasing amounts of garbage. These plants use strategies like compacting and sealing garbage to capture methane that can be used as fuel.
The garbage-to-gas program at the St. Landry Parish, LA landfill landfill began as a way to get carbon credits from burning methane, said Richard LeBouef, executive director of the community's solid waste disposal district.
Now natural gas from the 12 garbage trucks of the landfill company Waste Connection, the five pickup trucks of the landfill and six trucks for the garbage disposal teams. The district put $ 2.7 million plus maintenance into the system.
“What we're saving in monetary terms is not very substantial, but in line with the green issue, I think it's a great thing,” said LeBouef.
Incinerators usually generate electricity by burning the garbage at around 2,000 degrees and using it to boil water, which is converted into steam, superheated, and sent to a turbine.
Attempts to convert more pandemic garbage into energy are likely controversial, said Frank Roethel, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
But using the junk to make power beats makes it pile up, he said.
“Here the Biden government is talking about climate change and strategies that could help reduce emissions,” said Roethel. “And energy waste is not necessarily recognized, but it could certainly reduce emissions.”
The information for this report was contributed by Janet McConnaghey of The Associated Press.