Powering the grid with rubbish

What do Florida, New York City and Sweden have in common? They are all using trash to fuel their local power grids. In fact Sweden is finding that not enough rubbish is produced locally to fill energy demands and has started importing garbage from other countries.

Sweden already recycles almost half its rubbish, and the rest is burned for energy in local plants to produce energy for households, so that only 1% of national waste ends up in landfill. In Sweden 950,000 homes are heated by trash, and 260,000 homes get all their electricity this way.

New York City has waste-to-energy plants which take around a quarter of the city’s trash to be converted to energy. In other parts of the US it’s still more economical to landfill, but in densely populated areas this isn’t possible.

Florida takes trash from other states to convert to energy, with ten plants taking 4.5 million tons of trash and producing 3.5 million megawatt-hours in 2016 (about 2% of the state’s energy requirements).

The main problem with burning garbage for energy is that the emissions of poisonous smoke and gases must be captured, filtered and cleaned and this needs to be strictly regulated. Otherwise it’s a far worse option than landfill in terms of climate change.

Even when this happens, what waste-to-energy plants do emit is a lot of carbon dioxide and water vapour. Although carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, proponents claim that treating waste in this way is still safer, compared to emissions from landfill.

Another danger with trash-to-energy is that it may negatively impact recycling rates. Producing new products from recycled material is much less energy-intensive than producing them from scratch. But if there is money in selling rubbish by volume, there’s a danger that recyclable materials will be sold and burned to produce energy. This is especially likely in countries with a less ‘green’ approach than Sweden, which takes care to import rubbish that has been sorted and recyclables removed from it.

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