When I was a kid, there was a strange looking garbage can in the back yard. It looked like a regular metal garbage cans (garbage cans were metal back in those days, before plastic was invented) but it was covered with round holes about one inch in diameter. It was also heavily corroded and lived behind the large brick fireplace that was also in the back yard. No one used it for anything but I remember that it had an interesting story that went along with it.
This can was used back in the day, before I was born, by my grandfather (who lived upstairs) to burn garbage. The story was about a can of shaving cream. Apparently, one day my grandfather was burning garbage and there was a discarded shaving cream can in there, which should not have been included in the garbage to burn because such a thing could explode. And it did. A piece of shrapnel from the exploding shaving cream can blew a new hole in the side of the burning garbage can, whizzed past my grandfather but missed him, passed through a hole in a nearby chain link fence and took a chip out of a brick in the apartment building next door. As evidence of this event there was an extra, ragged hole in the garbage can and a piece of brick missing visible on the side of the apartment building.
Yeah, I don’t believe it either. I was the youngest of four siblings and telling me tall tales was a family amusement, since the television had not been invented yet.
Anyway, the idea that burning garbage is good for the environment should strike you as wrong, because garbage is … well, it is garbage … and burning it releases all sorts of horrid toxins into the environment. So, burning garbage to produce energy would also be a bad thing. Better to burn something nice and clean. Like coal. Or uranium. Right?
Well, wrong, actually.
Author and science communicator Shawn Otto (Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America) has written an interesting piece on burning garbage to make electricity. It turns out that opposition to waste-to-energy technology is an example of science denialism on the left. Modern waste to energy plants are clean, and may be cleaner than many other forms of power plant. Also, when we burn garbage, we are getting “free” energy, to at least some extent, in relation to the problem of burning fossil fuels. While some of the Carbon released into the atmosphere in burning garbage may be Carbon from fossil fuel sources, much of it is carbon from non-fossil fuel sources (like trees).
Today’s waste-to-energy plants are not your granddaddy’s trash burners, and some liberal groups, like the Center for American Progress, are starting to look at the actual science and reevaluate long-held assumptions in light of new information and increasing concern over climate change. When they do, they are finding that today’s WTEs look surprisingly good for the environment and for fighting climate change.
Shawn’s article is detailed and has numerous helpful graphics. Go read it and become much better informed about the science of waste-to-energy production.
I think that one of the plants Shawn visited during his review of this problem may be the power plant not far from my house in Elk River. That power plant is built on the site of one of the earliest commercial nuclear power plants. That little fact has nothing to do with the topic at hand but I find it interesting nonetheless.