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Talking trash: recovering energy from city waste

Ethan Elkind, director, Climate Program at Berkeley Law | May 5, 2016

We had a spirited discussion on KALW radio’s “City Visions,” on May 2, concerning the prospects of turning the mountains of trash we’d otherwise send to landfills into energy.  You can listen to the audio here.

Wasting Opportunities Cover

My takeaway is that despite all our efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, there will always be some (hopefully small) percentage of garbage that we simply cannot avoid sending to landfills. Some of that waste may be too complicated or expensive to reuse, from pizza boxes with glue to “urine-stained carpets,” as Rob White from Sierra Energy pointed out.

San Francisco is one of the national leaders in waste-reduction policies, as Jack Macy described, and is able to address about 80-90 percent of its waste. But there’s a remaining 10 percent that may dwindle further but will still be shipped to landfills somewhere. At this point, hundreds of tons of garbage a day exit San Francisco for landfills.

I understand the concern from environmental advocates that waste-to-energy facilities have polluted local communities and that the promised results haven’t been delivered.

But as we argue in the Berkeley Law report “Wasting Opportunities,” technologies have improved, and the state has an overriding interest in trying to figure out how to reduce landfilling and meet renewable energy goals.  It would benefit all stakeholders to engage in a process to determine under what standards it might make sense to deploy some of these higher-performing technologies.

Not all waste-to-energy technologies will make the cut, but with proper, evidence-based analysis, some may shake out and provide environmental benefits.  At that point, we can address the siting concerns to ensure low-income communities of color are not overburdened by deployment.

But if we don’t take action soon, the status quo on trash is simply not sustainable.

Crossposted from Ethan Elkind’s blog.

Comments to “Talking trash: recovering energy from city waste

  1. The essential problem remains that though improved, incineration technologies still emit persistent toxics and create new ones.

    Compared to leaving them on the ground, distributing toxic elements to the air creates greater potential for exposure. Once you put them into the air, there is no way to control them. We are still dealing with the aftermath of the distribution of lead into the air from combustion in gasoline powered vehicles.

    The State of California has spent many years and many dollars reducing emissions of toxic air contaminants.

    Why create a new stream of toxic air contaminants?

  2. What about here at Cal? We could build a clone of the El Cerrito Recycling Center at the corner of Oxford and Bancroft and a waste-to-energy plant next to it to replace our aging steam co-generation plant. You’d eliminate the need to cart off our waste stream, replace $750,000 packer trucks (we currently have six or 7 and all are due for replacement) and make a major dent in our Zero Net Energy and Zero Waste by 2020 goals.

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