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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.

Safety concerns are just one reason these plants have not taken off in the United States. They are costly to build, and they're vehemently opposed by environmental organizations such as New York Public Interest Research Group, on the grounds that they go against the conservation mantra that's finally starting to take hold.

Thanks to increased environmental awareness and, in part, the recession, frugal is in, and excess is gradually going out of style. People are starting gardens, buying local, shopping at consignment shops and trading in gas guzzlers. Simple, common-sense changes such as expanding the bottle deposit bill and marketing reusable grocery bags are making it easier for people to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Environmentalists worry that waste-to-energy plants could divert focus away from what they see as the best long-term solutions "" waste-reduction strategies like recycling and composting "" not just in terms of public compliance, but also by competing for government subsidies and "green-collar" jobs.

As a proponent of sustainability, my gut instinct is to agree with NYPIRG. Environmentalists are beginning to make progress in getting people to realize the cumulative environmental impact of their daily choices and habits. Would these gains be halted if people suddenly didn't care about how much waste they generated, and, on the contrary, had an incentive to produce more? Is it possible that, by turning waste into a valued commodity, our consumption-based culture would continue on its destructive path? From a practical standpoint, would the environmental benefits of burning vs. burying trash offset the costs of producing and transporting all the unnecessary stuff we'd continue to acquire?

These are legitimate questions to consider. However, on the other hand, what could be more sustainable than a community collecting its own trash, rather than paying to have it shipped to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind landfill, and turning it into power for its own homes and businesses?

One of the reasons waste-to-energy plants work in Denmark is because the country has a high recycling rate. According to The Times, 61 percent of the town of Horsholm's waste is recycled, and 34 percent is incinerated at waste-to-energy plants.

In the United States, however, we're not doing so well. According to NYPIRG, New York state's recycling rate for mixed household waste is only 20 percent.

Composting, recycling and reducing consumption are important goals, and these should be our first priority in dealing with the challenge of what do with our trash. However, the environmentalist's dream of "zero waste" may not be realistic, and we should not be so set on achieving this goal that we fail to even consider the role trash-burning plants could play in getting rid of material that can't be recycled.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at