Landfills are America’s preferred method for disposing of trash. But what are other countries doing?Learn more about the book and author at Edward Humes's website.
Waste energy is a component of the European model. Germany landfills less than one percent of its waste, as opposed to sixty-nine percent for the United States. Germany recycles fifty-six percent of its material, versus about twenty-five percent for us.
Denmark is about fifty-fifty waste-to-energy versus recycle. And they are net energy exporters on the backs of their waste-to-energy plants and wind farms. They also have more of a community-based solution. They don’t build what we would call utility-scale power plants. The idea is that trash is a local phenomenon so a community should deal with its own trash. Their plants are relatively modestly proportioned and they provide heating as well as electricity through a system of underground conduits.
In the U.S. it’s never a distributed community-level approach. We build these enormous facilities that are almost prohibitively expensive, and many communities are reluctant to have these facilities close by. We fail on that score because if you can make smaller, more cost-effective plants that are a source of community pride, then you avoid a whole set of problems that the Japanese and Europeans are avoiding.
What’s wrong with our emphasis on recycling?
Recycling is a better-than-nothing solution. The problem with recycling is that for most materials it is incredibly inefficient. Some materials, like aluminum, you get a lot of bang for your buck, but for many things, like plastic bags, there isn’t much market. The most recycled content you can put into a plastic grocery bag is thirty percent, because the polymer chains break down when they are recycled and are not as strong.
The go-to solution for waste should first be...[read on]
Humes is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 12 nonfiction books, including a trilogy of environmental works: Eco Barons, Force of Nature, and Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash.
The Page 99 Test: Force of Nature.
The Page 99 Test: Garbology.