Trash or Waste As an Energy Source History & Arguments

About the history of the use of trash or waste and an alternative energy source as well as arguments for and against this method.



The use of waste products for fuel dates back to the dawn of civilization. In fact, from the discovery of fire to the beginning of the 19th century, dung and debris comprised one of the most plentiful energy sources, second only to wood in consumption. In India and other countries with little industry, refuse supplied over 90% of human energy needs well into the 20th century; and as recently as 1953 it accounted for nearly one fifth of the world's fuel consumption.

In the U.S., it was cow chips that cooked the food and warmed the sod houses of the farmers who settled the great treeless plains between the Missouri River and the Rockies after the Civil War. New York City, one of the world's most prolific generators of garbage (over 30,000 tons per day at present) pioneered in turning crud into candlepower. Before 1910, incinerators in Manhattan and Brooklyn were supplying electricity to light up the Williamsburg Bridge as well as a number of buildings, only to shut down as Edison Company utility rates dropped to competitive levels.

Some European cities, notably Paris and Copenhagen, have been combining garbage with other fuels for the past half-century. This addition of what might be called "fossil fuel helper" has not only stretched costly coal and oil supplies but also has diluted their polluting sulfur content.

Today over 120 plants are converting refuse into energy around the globe, principally in Europe. One of the first modern American facilities is the Saugus, Mass., complex, fully operational since early 1976. It digests rubbish from a dozen surrounding communities as well as parts of Boston and sells the resultant steam to a neighborhood factory. And the U.S. Navy has saved over $500,000 in fuel costs since 1967 with its salvage fuel boiler plant in Norfolk, Va., where 50,000 lb. of steam is born of garbage every hour.

Generally waste becomes fuel in one of three ways: (1) outright burning for conversion to steam; (2) anaerobic digestion--serving the slop to certain microbes, which, after eating their fill, give off methane gas; and (3) hydrogasification--mixing garbage with hydrogen under heat to form the equivalent of natural gas.


Garbage-to-energy schemes solve two of our most pressing problems with one stroke. Instead of dumping trash in a not-so-sanitary landfill or flushing it out to rivers and streams, why not use it to heat and cool our homes and offices in place of, or as a supplement to, costly fossil fuels? It would mean less pollution and would ease the drain on dwindling reserves of coal, gas, and oil.


The net amount of energy saved, even if all our garbage were converted to usable fuel, is negligible. Although waste could supply an estimated 10-15% of our energy needs, the fuel required to collect, transport, sort, and treat it eats into that figure. If crop residue and animal waste are collected for fuel instead of being plowed under to replenish the earth, the soil will deteriorate and will be left more vulnerable to erosion. It may seem desirable to run power plants with the 14 million tons of human feces Americans flush away each year, but by the time the waste reaches the end of a city's sewer line, it is too wet to process efficiently.

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