The Renewable Energy Threesome: “Hey, Waste-to-Energy, how are YOU doing? … Meet solar and wind.”

I know, I know… we have been scolded since the 1970’s that we need to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle”. Back then, the idea of buying water (of all things) in bottles that would be thrown away seemed totally ridiculous, yet here we are today, using more than ever!

Sadly, there are literal islands of plastic now floating in the world’s oceans. There are millions of tons more buried in landfills and scattered along roadways across the planet. Add to this mass of plastic the billions of tons of paper, wood waste, chemicals and other non-recyclables and the mountains of trash we 6 billion humans create each year is mind-boggling. “Reduce, reuse and recycle” is a catchy slogan, but clearly not a viable strategy for environmental health.

Further, I suggest that the costs of recycling; collecting … transporting … sorting … stockpiling … cleaning … transporting (again) … processing (using more energy) … repurposing … remanufacturing … transporting (again) … and then returning to market (to start the process all over) is costly, inefficient and inherently a pain in the proverbial ass!

What’s worse is that many things we BELIEVE are being recycled just aren’t!

Any particular plastic, cannot be recycled if it is mixed with any other kind of plastic, let alone wood or food remnants. So polyethylene can’t be blended with polypropylene or styrene or acrylic or PVC or anything else. So that old stray Tupperware lid you threw away can’t be blended with your milk bottles or shopping bags from last week or the foam from the couch cushions you left at the curb. It’s just too time consuming and costly to separate it all. Paper is not quite as bad as plastic, but after it has been recycled a few times it is pretty much spent. Its fibers have been destroyed and can’t hope to rise to the occasion to make another sheet of paper. If the trash is too hard to deal with, guess what? It’s off to the landfill!

Changing the paradigm.

Let’s simplify the cycle noted above and intercept the waste as it leaves the home or business. Divert it ALL from landfill (and any inefficient recycling effort) and simply vaporize it.  POOF! Trash converts to energy. LOTS OF ENERGY!! (Who knew?!)

We can use gasifiers, where the plastic, paper, wood and other organic materials are converted to hydrogen and methane gases and solid carbon (which is a happy offspring of the process). The solid carbon can then be added back to the ground as a useful soil amendment, which keeps it from ending up in the atmosphere as green-house gases … and thus provides a zero carbon footprint (actually, it’s a NEGATIVE CARBON FOOTPRINT, if you presume the carbon was taken from the air by the tree before it gave its life to become paper).

The math …

Roughly speaking each ton of garbage can produce 1000 kW (1MW) of power. At this rate, 130 pounds per day will rev up a typical North American home. In the USA, 3500 landfills bury 600,000 tons of potential fuel every day! If we gasified it all, we could power 9 million homes. Using this instead of fossil fuels will save the environment twice over; zero landfill and zero greenhouse gases from coal, oil and gas combustion.

No doubt, solar and wind power are decidedly sexier than garbage power, but if you close your eyes and can get past the trashiness, it’s a perfect power threesome!  Waste-to-Energy is the 24/7/365 “base-load” stud that keeps going and going, rain or shine.

It’s a veritable renewable energy orgy. Party on, World.