Normative Narratives

Green News: Another Look at Recycling Organic Waste / Garbage

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A small clerical issue; I have decided to add a new category, “Green News”, because environmental issues are such an important component of sustainable human development. I also feel like I have been focusing too much on conflicts and economic news, this new category will hopefully help balance out the content I produce.

Months ago, I wrote a blog about the interesting idea of turning garbage into electricity. The blog focused on innovations and regulations that in recent decades have made the process much more sustainable:

Turning waste into energy may seem futuristic, but in this case the future is today. There is currently a high capacity operational waste-to-energy plant in Malaysia:

“K.S. Sivaprasad, an engineer from India, spent four decades perfecting a factory that accepts city trash, dries it, picks out the burnable elements and ignites them to create electricity. His first full-scale plant chews through 700 tons of garbage a day and delivers 5.5 megawatts to the power grid.”

In the U.S., waste-to-energy used to be unregulated and, as you could imagine, quite environmentally harmful. Burning trash, without taking the proper measures, released all sorts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Over time, the process has become more regulated and environmentally friendly:

“Proponents of WTE technology argue that thermal processing is a form of recycling and that new technologies and EPA regulations have eliminated the odor and air pollution many people connect with the process of incinerating trash. Professor Nickolas J. Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University, said he thinks that much of the opposition to creating WTE plants in the city stems from people’s memories of the bad old days.

“At one point New York had 30 municipal incinerators and about 15,000 residential incinerators with no regulation at all. It was a mess,” said Themelis. “There is this kind of animus among people who have been exposed to incinerators in the past. They associate them with black smoke and horrific pollution. But the truth is, those are all gone now. The pollution generated by trucking waste to landfills can’t compare to how little a modern WTE facility produces. The people who oppose these technologies are like the Flat Earth Society, they are holding back progress.”

Mayor Bloomberg called for a pilot waste-to-energy program in NYC this past March:

“Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced on Tuesday that the city was looking for a pilot “state of the art facility” that could handle a maximum of 450 tons of trash a day — out of a total of 10,000 tons currently in need of disposal — with plans to double that capacity if successful. The plant, which must be in New York City or no farther than 80 miles away, would be privately built and operated.”

In related news, a milestone has been claimed in a related process of turning organic waste and eventually garbage into fuel:

After months of frustrating delays, a chemical company announced Wednesday that it had produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood waste and other nonfood vegetative matter, a long-sought goal that, if it can be expanded economically, has major implications for providing vehicle fuel and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

The company, INEOS Bio, a subsidiary of the European oil and chemical company INEOS, said it had produced the fuel at its $130 million Indian River BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Fla., which it had hoped to open by the end of last year. The company said it was the first commercial-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic feedstock, but it did not say how much it had produced. Shipments will begin in August, the company said.

The process begins with wastes — wood and vegetative matter for now, municipal garbage later — and cooks it into a gas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Bacteria eat the gas and excrete alcohol, which is then distilled. Successful production would eliminate some of the “food versus fuel” debate in the manufacturing of ethanol, which comes from corn.

The plant has produced “truckloads” of ethanol, said Mr. Williams [Chief Executive of INEOS Bio], but still has work to do to improve its yield. Mr. Niederschulte [Chief Operating Officer of INEOS Bio] said, “Now we want to produce more ethanol from a ton of wood, rather than just making ethanol from a ton of wood.”

The Department of Energy hailed the development as the first of a kind, and said it was made possible by research work the department had sponsored in recent years.

If ethanol can be produced at reasonable cost from abundant nonfood sources, like yard trimmings or household trash, it could displace fuel made from oil, and that oil, and its carbon, could stay in the ground, reducing the amount greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, experts say. Carbon from wood scraps or garbage would enter the atmosphere via cellulosic ethanol, but cutting down a tree or trimming a garden creates space for new growth, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air.

Funny enough, I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about garbage and recycling. I was wondering how to overcome the obstacle of people simply throwing away recyclable waste. I argued there should be public sector jobs for people to perform such a task. His response was that the private sector already has incentive to sift through garbage, and does via waste management businesses. Duh!

Back on topic, it certainly seems like recycling has reached a “golden age”. I am not just talking about conventional recycling, which people do themselves and other factors both private and public, formal and informal, supplement. This is about the possibilities of turning waste, garbage, rubbish, or whatever you wish to call it, into both electricity and liquid fuel. The only hurdle which remains (and admittedly a big one) is commercial viability. 

Sustainable development requires innovative thinking, like harnessing electricity from the sun, or wind, or tidal power. This is a perfect example of why we need subsidies and government funded R & D into renewable energy (and public education in general), because the power of innovation is what will ultimately lead to sustainable development in the 21st century. The creative economy is a major engine for sustainable growth, and must be fostered through investment in human capital.

Innovations such as these will only become more important as the worlds population continues to balloon. We have reached a point where one mans trash is literally another mans treasure–a consistent and sustainable source of treasure. 

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6 thoughts on “Green News: Another Look at Recycling Organic Waste / Garbage

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  2. Any research into renewable / alternative energy must include Hermann Scheer (1949-2010) from Germany. Scheer was instrumental in establishing “feed-in tariffs” for the German people which opened the floodgates of the solar/renewable economy in Germany. The evidence is seen in Germany in the form of many homes and commercial buildings with solar panels. Americans need to demand the same for this country with an awareness that those who dominate the present energy industry will fight to retain their favorable profits position. The main action which Scheer accomplished was the feed-in tariff being written into national law. It guaranteed that renewables would be successful in Germany, and it has been. Scheer called solar energy the “energy of the people” and only the people can make the reality of solar and other renewables come to pass.
    Thank you,
    Jerry

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  3. this is a great way forward as land fill sites become more obsolete it’s about time we became more resourceful with our waste products instead of dumping at sea etc

    rubbish clearance

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  4. recycling rubbish for power is great news as landfill sites become more obsolete and dumping rubbish in the sea disastrous for the planet it’s about time we thought about it logically

    rubbish clearance.

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