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Columns

April 17, 2010

Trash burning could be smart energy source

"Don't throw your trash in my back yard, my back yard, my back yard. Don't throw your trash in my back yard "" my back yard's full."

My kids learned that catchy tune in music class as kindergartners, and it popped into my head the other day as I was reading a New York Times article on the success of trash-burning energy plants in Denmark.

Unlike conventional incinerators, these waste-to-energy plants have a high-tech system of filters and scrubbers that removes pollutants and toxic chemicals while converting household garbage and industrial waste into heat and electricity for nearby homes. Proponents cite several reasons for the rise in popularity of these plants (Denmark's 29 plants are among about 400 throughout Europe) "" including reduced trash hauling costs, less reliance on oil and gas, diminished landfill use and lower carbon dioxide emissions.

Cheaper energy costs have made the plants attractive to homeowners, too. In Horsholm, Denmark, for example, a plant is located literally in a neighborhood's back yard "" about 400 yards over a fence that borders the homes' carports "" and 80 percent of the town's heat and 20 percent of its electricity come from burning trash.

The issue of turning trash into energy raises some important questions about the hard choices we are facing. Most can agree that the ideal systems for creating and transporting goods, producing energy and disposing of waste need to be, first and foremost, safe, posing little or no risk to the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Are waste-to-energy plants safe? I've seen conflicting reports. The Times article says the plants are so clean that they emit lower levels of cancer-causing dioxins than a home fireplace or backyard barbecue. However, some environmentalists claim the chemicals these plants emit still pose a serious public health threat.

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