Garbage Is Gold

"We now have the technology to take garbage, turn it into hydrogen gas, and feed it to a fuel cell to create clean electricity and heat, with virtually no emissions, no greenhouse gases released, and no combustion, period. Garbage to gold, pure and simple."—Fred Schwartz, vice president of Intellergy, a California energy company.

Fred Schwartz, "There's Power in All That Garbage," Globe and Mail, June 16, 2005, p. A21.

The WTE systems work by burning rubbish and using the heat to make steam, which drives a turbine and can generate electricity. In the United States, WTE plants are already a significant source of energy. As Diane Gow McDilda, a writer for MSW Management, explains:

The Integrated Waste Services Association reports that today there are 89 WTE plants in operation in the US. Together they have the capacity to generate nearly 2,700 MW of electricity. This renewable form of energy production operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over 365 days a year to produce 17 billion kWh (kilowatt-hours, a measurement used by electric companies to charge for electricity) of electricity. That's enough electricity to run 2.3 million homes in the US. WTE facilities account for nearly 20% of all renewable resource energy generation here in the [United States].53

Perhaps the most exciting type of garbage-to-energy technology, however, is plasma gasification, a process that reduces wastes to their harmless molecular components. As Joseph Longo, the founder of industry leader Startech Environmental Corporation, explains: "What's so devilishly wonderful about plasma gasification is that it's completely circular. ... It takes everything back to its fundamental components in a way that's beautiful."54 Writer Michael Behar explains how plasma technology works:

A 650-volt current passing between two electrodes rips electrons from the air, converting the gas into plasma. Current flows continuously through this newly formed plasma, creating a field of extremely intense energy very much like lightning. The radiant energy of the plasma arc is so powerful, it disintegrates trash into its constituent elements by tearing apart molecular bonds. The system is capable of breaking down pretty much anything except nuclear waste, the isotopes of which are indestructible. The only byproducts are an obsidian-like glass used as a raw material for numerous applications, including bathroom tiles and high-strength asphalt, and a synthesis gas, or "syngas"—a mixture of primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide that can be converted into a variety of marketable fuels, including ethanol, natural gas and hydrogen.55

Supporters believe that plasma plants will eventually replace landfills by providing a cheaper way to dispose of trash. Although a plasma converter plant would be expensive to build initially—roughly about $250 million—in large cities it could potentially pay for itself in ten or twenty years by eliminating the costs of landfill dumping and maintenance fees. After that, cities might even be able to make money with the plasma machines by selling the electricity, syngas, and glass that the plasma process produces.

'"Waste to energy" incineration plants turn garbage into ash, which reduces its mass and weight, and creates renewable electricity. This power plant runs on burning household waste.

Plasma technology, however, is still unproven on a large scale and has attracted some critics. Brad Van Guilder, a scientist at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for example, says: "That obsidian-like slag contains toxic heavy metals and breaks down when exposed to water. . . . Dump it in a landfill, and it could one day contaminate local groundwater."56 Other commentators worry about the environmental effects of syngas. As Monica Wilson, the international coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, warns, "In the cool-down phases, the components in the syngas could re-form into toxins."57

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