We are full of garbage

We’ve all seen the copious quantities of garbage cans that line our streets and trash closets on collection day and it seems almost impossible that anyone could run out of garbage but it’s happened to Sweden. The country has actually run out of trash.

Cities in Sweden burn garbage for the energy to power their buildings and plants; nearly half of the structures in Oslo are powered by the burning of garbage. Sweden’s use of garbage for fuel, coupled with their extensive and popular recycling programs leaves only 4 percent of their solid waste going to landfills. What percent of household trash from the United States ends up in a landfill, you ask? An estimated 50 percent. In fact, one garbage burning plant owner in Oslo has expressed interest in purchasing American garbage. They’re already paying neighboring countries for their trash.

Available data for landfill use in the United States is a little bit old, but nevertheless startling. In 2003, Americans landfilled 2.46lbs of garbage…per person….per day. We have 3,091 active landfills across the states and while we are in no danger of running out of fill, we should consider that we may run out of land.

In the Lehigh Valley, there has been some discussion about the necessary expansion of the IESI Bethlehem landfill that operates off of Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township. The expansion would require a rezoning of the nearby area to accommodate waste, but the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission voted against this redesignation.  So, where is the trash to go? The United States recycles 34.7 percent of its Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), burns 11.7 percent of it and discards 53.7 percent. With our population and rate of consumption, this leaves us with a lot of stuff packing our landfills while our municipalities are opposed to expanding landfills.

Should we start burning our trash for energy like Sweden? Try to recycle more? Or should we sell our trash?

What do you think is the SUSTAINABLE solution for the Lehigh Valley?

Posted on August 13, 2013, in About RenewLV, Education, Energy, Federal Policy, Health, Municipal Government, Neighborhoods, Public Infrastructure, Regions, State Policy, Trends, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Well regulated waste to energy facilites can be great. I think clean air is always a concern but I am confident in the systems we have in place. There are some places close by, like Sustainable Waste Solutions, that are already doing this. Also, some of our cement manufacturers burn waste. In our world of choices I think the lesser of the two evils is incineration… I have never been a big fan of land fills.

  2. I would love to see an efficient waste-to-energy system — if it is also safe and does not put people’s health at risk.

    Waste incineration is a very risky proposition, because trash contains a wide variety of ingredients. Lead, mercury, and other heavy metals are toxic even in minute does and organics that react to the heat of combustion and combine in unpredictable ways.

    EPA & DEP regulations are nowhere near adequate to deal with dioxins & furans produced in the combustion process. These are two of the most dangerous substances we encounter — for example, the DTE proposal in Allentown supposedly will release “only” about 11 ounces of dioxin per year, but that’s enough to contaminate thousands of people.

    There are processes for waste-to-energy that do not involve incineration, which eliminates much of the concern about dioxins and furans but does not necessarily deal with the heavy metals and other toxins.

    This is an evolving area, so I need to update myself on the latest approaches. If I find anything to add to the above, I’ll post it later.

  3. I haven’t yet had a chance to research the latest in Sweden’s waste-to-energy systems, but a few years ago, they were using a biodigestion approach that produced biofuel, methane, heat, and a compostable residual. I don’t recall how they kept the toxins out of the stream.

    The first step is even simpler than waste-to-energy, even if it is safe for the environment and people’s health – just follow the first principle of the ‘3Rs’ of recycling, which is Reduce.

    + On average, about half the food in the U.S. winds up as waste and goes to the landfill.

    + Even if we reduce food waste, we need to compost it instead of sending it to the landfill.

    + Municipalities need to offer free recycling & composting – both of which are essential to reduce GHG emissions. These should be paid for by volume-based charges for trash. This approach almost always results in huge reductions in trash volumes and much higher recycling and composting.

    + Our consumer society is based on continually buying more stuff, which is usually made so it is easier to replace than repair or upgrade.

    + Much of our waste comes from packaging designed to reduce damage while stuff is in transit from the other side of the country [or the other side of the world!]. One of many reasons to buy locally-made products whenever possible.


  4. If you’re interested in another current waste-to-energy scheme, see the article on efforts to block a huge incinerator in Indiana.

  5. It is amazing that Sweden has managed to reduce the amount of trash going into their landfills by such a large margin. However, I can’t help but be concerned about what may be being released into the atmosphere when these food waste products are burned.

    I would imagine that there are many nasty chemical ingredients in much of the trash being incinerated, and wouldn’t be surprised if this led to a higher amount of harmful GHG in the environment.

    It seems that there is no ‘perfect’ way of getting rid of trash, whether its incineration or piling it all in landfills. But there is much to be said for composting and simply avoiding as much unnecessary food packaging as possible. And to make a real difference, everyone has to be conscious of their purchases and waste disposal choices.

  6. The Pied Piper

    Misinformed blog post and I’m not really sure what you’re getting at with it but over 70% of IESI’s garbage intake is garbage from other states. The regional landfills don’t make money just handling garbage from the area. Never have.

    Is Renew advocating that the Lehigh Valley should be the landfill for other states? That’s an interesting position to take.

  7. Renew is certainly not advocating that the Lehigh Valley become a landfill spot for other areas, simply that perhaps there are better ways to handle trash than the current system of expanding landfills. If it’s possible to incinerate garbage without severe environmental consequences, that could be one solution but we are also promoting more comprehensive recycling and the declined use of unnecessary and wasteful packaging in the Lehigh Valley and beyond.

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