Sunday, June 08, 2014

Talkin' trash: Are we literally throwing away energy?

Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann wakes up every day thinking about trash. What got him thinking about it in the first place is how much of it is simply dumped into landfills across America when most of what is not recyclable could instead be turned into energy for homes and businesses everywhere.

Schmidt-Pathmann has seen a better approach in his native Germany where only about 1 percent of all municipal waste goes into landfills. This compares with about 68 percent in the United States of the 400 million tons discarded annually, he explains. (Exact numbers are hard to come by, but he prefers figures collected by Biocycle Magazine.) Germans recycle almost 70 percent of their municipal waste and burn almost all the rest to turn it into energy.

Schmidt-Pathmann is founder and executive director of the Zero Landfill Initiative based in Seattle. He says that the United States could add 12 gigawatts (billions of watts) of electricity generation by expanding waste-to-energy facilities even if the country upped its percentage of recycling to that of Germany's. The United States currently recycles about 25 percent of its waste. Burning all the landfill waste currently available would provide an extra 33 gigawatts. That would be the equivalent of 33 large electricity generating plants.

But, Schmidt-Pathmann thinks he knows why there is so much resistance to the German model in the United States.

First, Americans still believe that burning waste is a dirty business, giving off toxic fumes and plumes of smoke. But modern waste-to-energy facilities produce little in the way of air pollution using up-to-date technology to reduce emissions to a minimum. High-temperature burning breaks apart the bonds of toxic chemicals.

Schmidt-Pathmann says that we should think about the advances in waste-to-energy plants over the last thirty years in the same way we think about advances in computers from the first floppy disk operated ones in the early 1980s to the supercomputers of today.

Second, landfills used to be controlled mostly by municipalities. Now the vast majority of them in the United States are owned by private waste haulers who in turn haul 80 percent of the municipal waste in the country. It's currently cheaper for those haulers to dump the waste remaining after recycling into their landfills than to burn or recycle more carefully what's left.

In Germany it became government policy to reduce landfill disposal and therefore the government made it very expensive to use landfills. There is so far no such policy in America. In addition, there is far more land in America for creating landfills than in Germany making it cheaper to build them.

Third, Americans somehow believe that waste-to-energy facilities will result in less recycling. But a recent survey demonstrated that communities with waste-to-energy facilities actually recycle slightly MORE material than those without. This may be due to the fact that such communities tend to be leaders in waste handling and so have well-established recycling programs.

Moreover, waste-to-energy facilities recycle large amounts of metal that remain after the waste is burned. One company, Covanta, operating across the United States recovers the equivalent of five to six Golden Gate bridges of metals each year from the ash that remains after combustion.

Still, what's so bad about putting trash in a landfill? Here's what's bad about it according to Schmidt-Pathmann. Even though landfills produce methane that can be gathered and used to power generating plants, a portion of that methane--a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide--still leaks into the atmosphere. Beside this, much more energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions could be produced from the buried trash if it were instead burned.

Also, it turns out that private landfill operators are only responsible for their landfills for 30 years after closing. After that, society at large becomes responsible for the care and monitoring of those landfills which will remain hazardous for thousands of years. When these costs are added to the costs of landfilling, it becomes obvious why burning what can't be recycled makes economic as well as environmental health sense. And, it makes all the more clear why Pathmann believes that zero landfill should be our goal.

How could waste-to-energy and near zero landfill become the norm in America? It will only happen when landfilling becomes more expensive than the alternatives or when government forces it to happen.

Currently, Schmidt-Pathmann explains, the private waste haulers in the United States are politically powerful and quite understandably don't want their huge investment in landfills and the surrounding waste transportation infrastructure to become worthless. One way change could occur is if waste haulers were somehow reimbursed over time for what would become their stranded landfill assets in a manner similar to the way utilities are reimbursed through rate hikes for the mothballing of generating plants that become useless for regulatory or economic reasons.

Higher waste disposal rates would certainly be unpopular, but they could lead to a much safer future with cleaner energy and more recycling. Despite the higher cost, this might turn out to be a better course than containing and cleaning up ever expanding landfills indefinitely or hoping in vain that private waste haulers will voluntarily abandon their costly landfill infrastructure without compensation in favor of what's best for society.

There is one other possibility. Municipalities typically have waste hauling franchise agreements with private haulers that allow them access to residents. Those contracts often permit municipalities to divert waste to better uses such as recycling and energy production so long as at least some waste continues to go to landfills according the Schmidt-Pathmann. Whether municipalities have the will to go down this road--essentially starving the haulers of trash for their landfills--seems doubtful. The politically connected haulers will be unlikely to stand still as their businesses shrink for lack of trash.

Right now the United States produces 1 million football fields of trash 6 feet deep each year. We'd like to think that once we throw something away, we don't have to think about it anymore. But, unless we start doing things differently in the United States, we'll actually end up having to think about our trash for a very, very long time to come.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

In my jurisdiction Covanta wanted an expansion of their plant. They refused to produce emissions numbers and pushed off the expansion and played a game with the locals for about 8 years before withdrawing the request.

If they cannot even provide the most basic information related to the plume that floats over the poorest part of our city and the massive numbers of asthmatic children there they do not deserve such a puff piece from someone as smart as yourself.

Yes, the argument is with "modern" technology. The vast majority of plants in operation are not and will not be upgraded from 1970s technology. They continue to request grandfathering of permits and limited extra reduction in airpollution for the local population. This is hardly a solution.

Kurt Cobb said...

I would agree that if the waste-to-energy facilities refuse to use best practices emissions controls, then they are not worthy of consideration.

In Germany such plants are obliged to meet strict emissions standard. The fault lies not in the concept of waste-to-energy, but in the lackadaisical attitude American regulators have about air pollution (due to so much corporate influence in government) and an American public that in large part has been convinced by specious arguments from the same corporate interests that somehow wrecking our environment is good for business, when, in fact, it is only good for the managers and owners who can escape the wreckage.

Sandy Lawrence said...

"Even though landfills produce methane that can be gathered and used to power generating plants, a portion of that methane--a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide--still leaks into the atmosphere."
Any handle on what portion of methane becomes fugitive? Any regulations on monitoring that in general?

Anonymous said...

20 year old technology-gasification of trash, coal, railroad ties, etc allows for scrubbing prior to burning in a combined cycle plant with 70%+ efficiency.
As clean or cleaner than natural gas plant.
Only the will to buck those that have vested interest to not move ahead--too bad we lack knowledge and fortitude.

Anonymous said...

30 year period is estimate. Owners responsible for all costs and have to put up financial assurance in advance.

Incinerators burn fossil fuels in form of plastics, and all biogenic carbon. Plastics are inert in landfill, and only a portion of biogenic carbon degrades. Landfills are therefore a carbon sink, whereas incinerators are carbon emitters.

Federal rules prohibit methane releases from landfills, although a small amount does escape. The rest is collected and burned

Anonymous said...

Landfill operations that are capable to recovery over 50% methane would be very expansive and thus would not make sense. Over the life of the waste no more than 50% of the methane can be recovered (European statistics).

Anonymous said...

Regarding plastics being inert in landfills and landfills being carbon sinks please provide references.

Also, please identify the source of federal regulations prohibit methane release from landfills...

Anonymous said...

Yes, landfill operations to control methane are expansive. vertical and horizontal collection wells are installed throughout the trash and the removal/blower system is monitored continuously. Apply too much vacuum and fresh air is drawn into the landfill, resulting in a termination of the degradation process (bugs are anaerobic) and the potential for landfill fires. Too little vacuum and you have releases. the need to efficiently operate these systems is not only to prevent methane releases but also to control odors, which a prime concern of host communities.

Anonymous said...

landfill carbon sink - the portion of the biogenic carbon in the waste that does not degrade into methane and CO2 stays in the landfill, hence the landfill is a carbon sink. Think of the landfill as a compost pile that degrades into a carbon based topsoil. See link below

Anonymous said...

plastic does not degrade in a landfill because the bugs that eat the organic material do not eat plastic. That is why the landfill liners are made of plastic and last a very long time.

Anonymous said...

Federal Regulations governing landfill emissions:
New Source Performance Standards

Title V

Maximum Achievable Control Technology

New Source Review

Prevention of Significant Deterioration

Alan said...

Cobb has got this all wrong. Almost everything burnable is recyclable, and the recycling of it "saves" far more energy than the burning of it. (The thermal efficiency of a garbage burner is usually around 20 percent, less than half that of a modern coal unit.)

And, of course, anyone who states that burners "convert" (choose your term) waste into energy displays an ignorance of basic chemistry and thermodynamics.

Kurt Cobb said...

I would be interested in some citations from Alan concerning the efficiency of waste burners and the assertion that practically all waste is recyclable.

Of course, theoretically, everything is recyclable. But there is an energy cost to recycling. So, the question becomes whether the energy cost rises so much beyond a certain point that more energy is expended on recycling than would be captured through incineration. Energy costs including hauling, sorting, sales and hauling again to places that use the recycled material. I think America would be doing very well just to move from 25 percent recycling to match the German level of 70 percent. Certainly, Alan wouldn't oppose such progress, would he?

Though no one on this post including the other commenters uses the word "convert", I'm not sure I understand Alan's objection to the term. Matter is routinely combusted to produce heat energy which is then converted into mechanical energy for electric generating turbines which convert that mechanical energy into electricity which is used in homes and factories to power devices that convert the electricity into mechanical energy and heat.

There are certainly heat losses every step of the way with each conversion. This is basic physics. I'm not sure what Alan is getting at.

Of course, the first law of thermodynamics asserts that energy is conserved, i.e., it never disappears. But the second law teaches us that it does dissipate in the form of heat which eventually becomes too diffuse for humans to convert a portion to create what we call "work" which is actually a very specific technical term in physics.

Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann said...


Very well said. For the past 25 years (in the US) we have opposed converting waste into energy and advocated zero waste.

Where are we today?
In 1990 we landfilled 70 % of what we consider as waste. We have not changed very much with over 65% still going to landfills. We managed effectively to burn less 15% in 1990 -> 2012 about 7%.
Yes, we have increased our recycling rate but not the amount what goes to landfill.

Alan is hypothesizing regarding materials being recycled. The bottom line is that landfilling is way to cheap. The true cost of landfilling does not include the long term maintenance required nor the loss of materials.

It is our whole disposal infrastructure that needs an overhaul.

When landfilling our resources (material or energy content) becomes more costly than adequate recycling we will recycle more. I stated 'adequate recycling' as we seem to be doing a lot of single bin recycling, which is not very effective when you are competing with the attributes of virgin materials.

I would agree that most items could be recycled but the energy and effort needed does not currently agree with our American way of life and the way we similar to oil and gas treat raw materials, which we tend to consume instead of making best use of them.

Alan, please try to realize that it would be better to recover energy and materials from our 'waste' rather than filling up holes in the ground that we have to maintain for thousands of years.
That cost is, just as the resource value, not taken into consideration for landfilling.

In the perfect world we could recycle everything or even better, not produce 'waste' in the first place. Do we currently life in that world? Is that a reality? No.

Please consider that the German Green Party stated that (official statement):
1.Waste avoidance and recycling quotas are not the solution, they are just a part of it!
2.Even recycled products become waste after use!
3.Using best available technology for the incineration of residual waste means less impact to environment and to climate than landfilling!
Note:Although many members of the green party started their “career”in action groups against incineration plants, incineration with low emission levels, energy and material recovery is accepted today.

Alan, you are correct - recycling should have priority but before attacking a better alternative to landfilling which is what we currently do, please consider that this article focuses on the energy perspective (and CO2 balance).
Please see EPA article:

Our problem is that we are geared toward landfilling our resources and the 'other materials and substances' that remain as well costing us and future generations monies that we could use much more efficiently, especially over the period of 1000s of years.

Landfilling makes no sense - everyone is in the end a loser, even the landfill companies, their employees and shareholders.