Reimagine waste: From trash to energy

Public domain image: Garbage being unloaded at a Minnesota landfill.

When I say that we can power our cities off of the garbage they produce, you might think that I am referring to the practice of burning garbage. That is not the sole focus of this article, but I feel like it is something that should be discussed.

The practice of burning garbage to heat water, creating steam that rotates turbines, is the subject of much debate. In Wisconsin there are two large incinerators that burn garbage for energy with the largest one being the French Island Incinerator in La Crosse. Wisconsin is 1 of 23 states that identifies burning garbage as renewable energy, but as companies reduce packaging, and consumers recycle, reuse, and repurpose, that energy source becomes less renewable, and that is not a bad thing.

Burning trash to generate electricity seems like a win-win; reducing the amount of trash winding up in landfills and waterways while making something we need definitely has its appeal. But the question remains, what is this doing to our air quality? While the amount of particulate matter may vary from incinerator to incinerator, this is an ever present concern. Often, the effects of air pollution from incinerators are felt more in marginalized communities.

Another form of converting waste into energy is through methane capture. The waste water treatment facilities in Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids are doing this. This practice diverts a greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere and instead makes use of it to provide a source of renewable energy. Methane capture is a great fit for a wastewater treatment facility, but it often gets discussed more as a way for large farms to produce their own energy.

Farms with lots of liquid manure are a major source of greenhouse gases and air pollution. Unfortunately, the type of anaerobic digester that works best in Wisconsin’s climate is the most costly to install and maintain. I know of one farm of scale in Central Wisconsin that took advantage of grants to pay for the installation of one such digester but failed to keep up the maintenance. Basically, when it was up to this farmer to pay for the technology, it was simply abandoned. Even under the best of circumstances, methane capture from farms is hardly enough reason to justify the continuation of factory farming, a significant contributor to antibiotic resistance and a pandemic risk.

Biogas is not only found as a byproduct of feces; it is the reason why every covered landfill has pipes arising out of them. Landfill gas (LFG) is about 50% carbon dioxide and about 50% methane with trace amounts of other gases in the mix. It is a contributor to global climate change, but it is also a potential energy source.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), LFG has many end uses, including use as a pipeline gas, vehicle fuel, industrial use, and usage in arts and crafts. There are around 80 landfills in the state of Wisconsin, and most produce electricity in small amounts. Dane County has generated significant revenue trough the sale of electricity and compressed natural gas (CNG) generated from their landfill. Mas Energy announced plans to build a $25 million power plant at the Little Chute landfill site in 2022.  Many landfills in the southeastern part of the state have been producing electricity from LFG for the last 30 years. This is a practice that is likely to increase, and it needs to.

Even though converting waste into fuel is a good strategy for dealing with the waste that already exists, our goal shouldn’t be to make this practice truly fit the definition of renewable energy. We need to create less waste.

If a material, even though it is marked for recycling, isn’t truly recyclable, we need to find a better alternative that is. If a personal hygiene wipe, even though it is marked as flushable, isn’t likely to break down in water, then that product needs to be pulled from store shelves and replaced with products that really do break down in water. If a product makes a claim, it needs to be truthful, and if not, it should not be allowed to make such a claim. We already have truth in advertising laws, and product packaging advertises a product.

In solving the problem of waste, we must have a multi pronged strategy. We need to find good ways to deal with the waste we have currently, and making use of it is a step up from mere storage. We also need to devise a plan so that we create less waste. That may mean reimagining what waste really is.