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Waste-to-Energy:  A Controversial Solution to Garbage Control? - 2002-11-29

Waste management is a thriving industry in the United States. And it's no wonder. Americans produce more than 225,000 tons of garbage every year.

In recent decades, local governments and private companies have developed some very creative ways to dispose of this trash. But, no method is without its problems. One disposal solution has some benefits, but is nevertheless generating controversy in the United States, and around the world.

'Waste-to-Energy' incineration is the latest phenomenon to sweep through the global waste management industry. The technology is more than 50 years old, but it's enjoyed a high degree of popularity in recent years in places like Japan and Scandinavia, thanks to a shortage of landfill space. In the United States, where space hasn't yet become a problem, waste-to-energy incinerators are slightly less popular.

But 37 million Americans do send their to garbage to plants like the one, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where the trash is burned at temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius and used to make steam, which in turn, generates electricity.

"We're standing on the turbine deck. Right in front of us is a small, 36-megawatt turbine," says Gary Forster, the chief engineer at the Lancaster County Waste-to-Energy Incinerator. "And right here on this floor we are generating all the electricity that's being produced. It's enough to power about 15,000 to 20,000 homes, and this is where it's all happening."

The Lancaster County Waste-to-Energy Incinerator is one of more than 100 such facilities in 31 states across the country. As Mr. Forster moves from the turbine deck, through the furnace room, and on to the ash recovery building, where all the chunks of metal that survived the burning process are removed, he says electricity generation isn't the only good thing about a waste-to-energy incinerator. He says the other benefit is that the volume of the garbage is reduced by 90 percent.

We are now in the ash building. About 10 meters up is a rotating drum. All the ash is brought into this building," he says. "The rotating drum is actually a rotating magnet that's pulling out all the ferrous metal in the ash. The metal is kept in its own storage location, and is eventually sent out throughout the month to recycling markets."

The ash is sent to a nearby landfill, where it's mixed with dirt and used to bury garbage that's too toxic to be burned. On the surface, the most immediate environmental concern surrounding a waste-to-energy incinerator might seem to be the air, which gets loaded with dioxins any time anything is burned, whether it's organic or man-made. Dioxins have been linked to cancer and several types of auto-immune disorders.

But thanks to federally mandated pollution control mechanisms, even environmentalists admit modern-day incinerators release fewer dioxins into the air than coal-fired or natural gas-powered electricity plants. While American environmentalists are still concerned about air quality, they're more concerned that the ash coming out of these facilities is often treated as if it's harmless.

The fly ash is particularly, nasty, nasty stuff. And we have to wonder where that goes," says Paul Connett, a chemist at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. He's actively involved in an international campaign to stop the building of new incinerators, even ones that produce electricity.

It's a move that was recently adopted by lawmakers in the Philippines and Costa Rica. Many European countries classify incinerator ash as hazardous, and bury it underground. But Mr. Connett says in the United States, the feeling is so long as the stuff isn't blowing out of a smokestack, it's safe.

"Some of this material, which would have ended up in salt mines in Germany, in the United States is being used as landfill cover, or being used in making concrete and road beds and stuff," he says. "It's absolutely Kafka-esque. You pay a fortune to capture this stuff, and then turn around and spread it in the environment."

Representatives of the waste-to-energy industry admit the ash probably could be disposed of in a better manner, though they deny that it's as dangerous as Mr. Connett suggests.

Maria Zannes, president of the Integrated Waste Services Association, an industry group, says environmentalists need to accept the fact that like it or not, garbage exists - and something has to be done with it. Ms. Zannes says if you bury it in a landfill, it takes up space and adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. But if you burn it in a waste-to-energy facility, at least some good can come of it.

"We, in this country, dispose of 30 million tons of trash a day in waste-to-energy facilities," she says. "And we generate enough electricity to meet the needs of about 2.5 million homes. Now I think that's a fabulous thing."

But environmentalists like Paul Connett say it's a mistake to assume that garbage does, in fact, have to exist. It's estimated that as much as 70 percent of what's going into America's landfills and incinerators could be recycled or composted, and that's one of the reasons environmentalists believe waste-to-energy is a step in the wrong direction. But industry representatives like Maria Zannes also have studies to point to. The studies suggest that communities with waste-to-energy incinerators recycle about five percent more garbage than those without.