Spitzer should focus on turning garbage into renewable energy
By ALYSSA A. LAPPEN and JACK D. LAUBER
Eliot Spitzer, listen up.
First published: Sunday, December 3, 2006
# This is another in an occasional series of articles on issues
Eliot Spitzer will face when he becomes governor on Jan. 1.
Eliot Spitzer, listen up.
California, which has the nation's toughest environmental laws,
has just unveiled its "Roadmap for the the Development of Biomass." Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger seeks to boost California's wind, solar and
biomass projects, and to eventually extract 22 percent of California's
energy feedstocks from urban wastes.
Last March, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously adopted a 20-year-plan
to re-engineer its garbage disposal system and switch to waste-to-energy,
eliminating transport costs and pollution.
The New York City Council, by contrast, adopted a garbage-export
plan last July. Rather than harness trash to generate energy, New
York City taxpayers will continue to export garbage, and pollution
risks, at a cost of more than $600 million a year for residential
Misguided Schenectady exports its waste for landfilling near Rochester.
And Albany plans to encroach on pristine lands in the Pine Bush Nature
Preserve to expand its landfill.
New York City is the largest U.S. metropolis relying on other states
to dump its garbage. It exports at least 4 million tons of residential
municipal solid waste a year, at a cost of more than $100 a ton more
than double the potential price per ton to handle trash around New
Add to that the loss of at least $50 a ton in potential revenues
from local waste-to-energy electrical generation. If the city burned
even 70 percent of its residential garbage, current state-of-the-art
technology could produce sufficient electrical power to light 236,000
homes and help avoid blackouts.
The United States now uses only 20 percent of its renewable waste
fuels to generate energy. But waste-to-energy plants in Hempstead
on Long Island and Onondaga County and Massachusetts' SEMASS facility
prove that municipal and solid wastes can effectively serve as significant
biomass energy sources, generating clean electrical energy.
Continuing on New York City's current track, though, will generate
incalculable costs. Diesel trucks emit five times more particulate
matter per ton of municipal solid waste they transport than burning
it in waste-to-energy facilities. Consequently, the city's new waste
plan guarantees long-term low pollution from transport, millions
of gallons of wasted deisel fuel consumption, and increased health
New York City's policy will shift some transport to barges and rails.
But they burn diesel fuels, too and will perpetuate traffic snarls
and toxic emissions near waste transfer stations. Moreover, future,
as-yet unspecified destinations which could include states as distant
as Alabama could cost New York City even more per ton, says Eileen
Berenyi, president of Governmental Advisory Associates, a Westport,
Conn., waste consulting firm.
Unfortunately, using obsolete data, local and national organizations,
like the New York Public Interest Research Group and the Sierra Club,
argue that waste-to-energy's dangers outweigh its advantages. Rather
than "zero waste" generation an impossible goal anti-burn
activists should seek the achievable zero waste disposal.
Controlled, multistage waste-to-energy plants have virtually eliminated
emissions. Such plants have cut dioxins and other toxic emissions
by 99 percent or more in the last decade, the Environmental Protection
Agency reports. In the United States, total waste-to-energy plant
emissions, combined, reach only 12 grams of dioxin annually, less
than 0.5 percent of all dioxins nationwide. Even California recognizes
the value and minimal risk of waste-to-energy technology. Residue
can be recycled into road-building and construction materials, and
In 2004, New York's Public Service Commission implemented Renewable
Portfolio Standards. They require electric companies to provide 25
percent of their power from renewable means by 2013, according to
Ted Michaels, of Washington, D.C.'s Integrated Waste Services Association.
But New York doesn't list waste-to-energy as a viable, renewable
energy resource. The federal government, 11 states and the District
of Columbia do.
We also forget that landfills even those reclaiming gases emit far
more greenhouse gases than waste-to-energy plants. Organic landfill
wastes generate 2 million tons of methane annually, 21 times more
potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, the EPA reports. Europe
largely bans municipal solid waste landfills and obtains electricity
and heat for more than 30 million people from waste-to-energy systems.
Every year, landfills also emit thousands of tons of toxins and
carcinogens. Citing such problems, Bronx citizens sued New York City
for alleged adverse health effects from the Pelham Bay landfill.
Indeed, landfills are toxic time bombs. In past decades, Staten
Island buried more than 100 million tons of municipal solid waste,
without using landfill liners. Throughout the 21st century, toxins
will continue to leach into adjacent wetlands and flow into the air.
Disposed household and illicit hazardous wastes will continue to
react chemically, generating more contaminants. In landfills equipped
with plastic liners, toxins will eventually leak as the liners gradually
degrade. But New York blindly creates more landfills.
New York's governor-elect should focus on the best waste disposal
and renewable energy technologies. This would reduce pollution, lower
disposal costs, and generate alternate energy all while reducing
U.S. dependence on Mideast fuels.
Recycling energy from wastes, anyone?
Alyssa A. Lappen, previously a writer for Forbes Investor and Working
Woman, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Democracy. Jack
D. Lauber is a chemical/environmental engineer and environmental
consultant to Columbia University's Earth Engineering Center. He
formerly was chief of technology assessment for the state Department
of Environmental Conservation.
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