Mining Landfills For Buried Treasure

We're filthy. That's what the Economist reminds us in a special report on garbage. But let's not pooh-pooh our dirty ways too much. There's gold in those mountains of garbage.

Sure, our leftovers crowd every system from the seabed to the stratosphere and aside from the obvious ecological impact, our detritus distinguishes us as the only species that produces any garbage of any kind. In fact, the average Westerner produces 500 kg (1,102 lbs) of garbage per year. That waste ends up in landfills, recycling plants, compost bins and the environment at large, where it accumulates in recoverable areas like roadsides and largely unrecoverable areas like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There is even a saturnalian ring of space junk encircling the earth playing chicken with every satellite in its path.

But it's only this remarkably filthy moment in history that has necessitated the technology for turning garbage into something else.

The waste-to-energy sector is a rich cradle of innovation at the moment. One model initiative is the Energy Resource Recovery Facility in Fairfax County, Virginia. The plant burns over 1.1 million tons of solid waste per year to produce 80 megawatts of electricity. Waste that would otherwise lay in landfills ad infinitum is reduced 90% in volume. The only products are electricity that is fed into the grid to power 75,000 homes and readily biodegradable pot ash.

The EPA reported in 2006 that of the 251.3 million tons of solid waste produced by Americans 12 percent was converted to energy through incinerators like the one in Fairfax. Interestingly, such waste-to-enegy conversion plants are not considered renewable energy producers in all states and thus do not enjoy the federal subsidies funneled toward the solar and wind sectors.

Arguing for a more efficient system to turn garbage into energy, the chief of the National Solid Wastes Management Association recently asked,“Why fish bodies out of the river when you can stop them jumping off the bridge?” But let's take the thinking about waste conversion a step further. Why recover or recycle it when you can reuse it? Why reuse when you don't have to buy it in the first place? Why have it on the shelf when it is only destined for the landfill in the short-term anyway?

Reconceiving the world economy during this current period of crisis as one that peddles sustainable goods that humanity fully needs would take us a lot further toward meeting our waste reduction goals while not negatively affecting the waste-to-energy conversion sector. There will be fine mountains of garbage to convert for a long time to come.

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