Trash talking is not new to society however recently there has been an increasing amount of it. Specifically surrounding the debate regarding the benefits of landfills turning trash into power. While waste-to-energy technology has been around since the 1930s, as the ‘green’ movement has picked up speed so has technology dedicated to transforming our trash into ‘clean, green energy’. However is this all just a load of trash? Not according to the EPA, which has it’s own Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP).
As garbage decomposes in landfills it emits landfill gas (LFG) consisting of fifty percent methane, which according to the EPA has 20x the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. In fact, “each pound of trash you throw away will emit approximately 0.94 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent in the form of methane, and the average person in the U.S. throws away over 1,130 pounds of waste per year. For every person in the U.S., about 1,060 pounds of CO2 equivalent comes from the garbage we throw out every year.” Since methane is produced during the natural decomposition process it provides a constant power source, or so believes the 519 companies that now invest in this process. Nationally, landfill gas projects have increased 30% from 2005 to 2010. Below is a current map, courtesy of the EPA, of nationwide landfills as of December 16, 2009.
Landfill Gas Energy Projects and Candidate Landfills
While it is hard to imagine that the trash we throw away would be considered safe and clean, many companies have drank the kool-aid and are investing billions of dollars in our trash. Houston based company, Waste Management, is one such example. Waste Management currently runs around 115 landfill gas-to-energy projects. The company has even gone a step further and partnered with the North American engineering unit of Linde Group to build a $15.5 million liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility near Livermore, California. This LNG plant will use LFG to produce clean fuel that will help power about 300 Waste Management collection trucks. As Waste Managements, Director of Communication, Wes Muir stated, “It’s a great use for our landfill gas”.
Safe or dirty?
Turning trash into efficient sources to fuel trucks is good in theory however how safe is this technology? According to the EPA small amounts of dioxins/furans can be released during the LFG combustion process. Specifically, “based on national and international source tests, the concentration of dioxins from LFG combustion ranges from non–detectable to 0.1 nanograms (10–9 grams) of toxic equivalents per dry standard cubic meter of exhaust, at 7 percent oxygen.” Even with the release of toxins, the EPA claims that mercury emissions from combusted trash is safer than emissions released from ‘uncontrolled’ LFG. Personally I think this is a load garbage.