June 28, 2011 • Sustainability

Turning waste into energy

by Katie Schultz

Recently, I passed a Waste Management truck with the following message advertised on its side: “The waste we collect helps power over one million homes.” I hastily scribbled a note to myself as a reminder to research Waste Management and find out exactly how they are involved in energy management.

Waste Management (WM) was among the leaders of the waste-to-energy movement in the 1970s, creating facilities that have converted over 145 million tons of municipal solid waste into 75 billion kilowatt hours of energy — enough to power 650,000 homes every day. WM operates numerous facilities throughout the Northeast that together have the capacity to process more than 21,000 tons of waste per day. The combustion process used in the waste-to-energy facilities reduces the volume of waste by 90%, which saves valuable space in our landfills. Studies have shown that waste-to-energy plants like these prevent the release of millions of tons of greenhouse gases.

The process is fairly simple to understand. Trash is fed into furnace boiler units where temperatures exceed 2000 degrees. Hot gases from the burning waste convert water into steam, which is then routed to a turbine generator to produce electricity—from our trash!

Sustainability efforts are a top priority for many companies like Waste Management.  The majority of consumers today have an eco-consciousness that is present in even the most routine daily tasks, like taking out the trash.  Not only do we want to be aided in our effort to recycle, but we want to know that those efforts are continued even as our trash is carried away.  Waste companies nationwide are coming up with new and innovative ways to satisfy that request and motivate those who need a push to get started.

Republic Services has partnered with Recyclebank to offer rewards to those who recycle in certain areas.  All it takes is putting out your recycling at the curb. Republic  Services picks it up, records the amount recycled, and you’re rewarded with points that can be redeemed at over 1,500 local and national businesses.  Republic’s 2010 Sustainability Report describes how their Ox Mountain Landfill gas-to-energy project in Half Moon Bay, Calif., was recognized by the US EPA Landfill Methane Outreach Program as a Project of the Year.  Landfill gas from that location supplies enough renewable energy to customers in Alameda and Palo Alto to reduce emissions equivalent to taking 11,800 cars off the road.

Another waste company is doing its part to educate children about how landfills today aren’t just “dumps.”  Rumpke offers tours of its facilities to show children what processes take place in landfills and how materials are treated with care to protect the environment and the public.  Rumpke also describes to visitors how trash is powering homes, businesses and vehicles.  An experience like this would be an excellent motivator to a child to become an active participant in recycling and caring for the environment.

It is clear to see that these companies don’t “waste” time making excuses—they’re paving the way for sustainability in an industry that consumers cannot live without.  Garbage day may only occur once a week in the average household, but how we dispose of our waste should be on our minds every day.

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