Discovering The True Power Of Your Trash

Waste-to-energy facility in Broward County, Florida, situated at the Central landfill that also has a landfill gas to energy facility.
Image credit:Waste Management

Last week mayors from across the United States gathered in Providence, Rhode Island for the annual meeting (pdf) of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. From the many resolutions heard proposed at this year's Conference, it's clear that waste and energy issues are generating increased interest.

Though probably not front and center on their agenda, implementing progressive solutions to managing municipal waste directly addresses several of the local and national energy and environmental resolutions proposed by mayors across the country. When towns and cities take a smart approach to managing waste, an inherently regional issue, they also help solve national challenges the mayors will be addressing this weekend.

Take the need for locally generated renewable energy. Mayors across the country are demanding new sources of clean energy that are insulated from price volatility. Wind and solar receive the most attention, but waste-based energy uses a local resource to generate clean energy. Landfill gas-to-energy systems, such as the facility in place at Central Landfill in Rhode Island, can generate megawatts of clean power, enough for thousands of local homes. Waste-to-energy facilities have seen a resurgence of interest in recent years as they burn cleaner than fossil fuels and can provide a clean energy source to their host communities.

Waste-based power addresses another major goal of mayors nationwide: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Using landfill gas for energy puts methane, a potent greenhouse gas, generated during the decomposition of waste in landfills to good use. And the EPA has stated that waste-to-energy plants produce electricity "with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity."

Financing such energy projects can be difficult for municipalities, particularly in a tough economic environment. To address this problem, the US Conference of Mayors calls for a Federal Green Bank to help finance renewable energy projects. A complementary way to develop waste-based energy projects involves public-private partnerships, in which an energy developer shares the up-front capital costs, operational responsibilities and revenue with the city.

Not all waste decisions involve capital-intensive projects, and in fact many small steps can reduce greenhouse gas emissions for little expenditures. Improving efficiency in waste collection is one of the most cost-effective ways municipalities can achieve this goal. In public spaces, towns can look at providing solar powered on-site compactors, which can hold five times the amount of waste as a traditional bin, dramatically reducing collection trips and thus fleet fuel use. For curbside pickup of both waste and recyclables, instituting automated collection, in which a mechanical arm replaces human labor, can greatly improve collection efficiency; retrofitting trucks, standardizing bins and educating the citizens are other significant steps.

Mayors at this year's Conference discussed a number of challenges, including how to tackle energy and environmental problems and developing innovative methods to finance these solutions. Implementing a smart waste management program can help save cities money, improve the local and global environment and significantly improve citizens' quality of life. Although, no single approach will provide a cookie-cutter solution to the diverse needs of municipalities across the country, we hope the Mayors will reconsider their cities' approach to garbage as they attempt to solve some of the larger challenges ahead.

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Tags: Rhode Island | Waste

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