Trash or Waste As an Energy Source The Future

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



As the price of oil rises out of sight, more and more boards of directors are likely to sniff out profits in the garbage pile. According to Robert Bennington, president of Construction Equipment Associates, Inc., the rendering of all garbage in the U.S. into powdered fuel would result in the equivalent of 2 million barrels of oil--the maximum amount the Alaskan Pipeline will eventually carry. Sixteen conversion plants have already been constructed in the U.S., and at least a dozen more are under way. In February, 1977, Waste Management, Inc., announced plans for a $2.8 million pilot project at Pompano Beach, Fla., which is expected to gobble up two thirds of that area's trash and sludge and turn out enough methane gas to heat and cool 10,000 homes. At Hempstead, Long Island, a new multi-million-dollar refuse plant went into operation in the fall of 1978; it supplies steam for an adjacent Long Island Lighting Co. generator. The plant is designed to convert 2,000 tons of refuse per day into 32,000 kilowatts of electricity, making it among the world's largest such facilities. The town will realize $2 million a year in revenues from the electricity generated.

The idea of using garbage as an alternate source of fuel has become especially popular with industries in those states hardest hit by the gas shortage during the severe winter of 1977. In Ohio, for example, Rockwell International is sinking $500,000 into its Marysville truck axle works to convert that plant's heating and cooling system to trash power. In addition to burning all the factory's paper, cardboard, and wood refuse, the system will also consume stalks from a neighboring 50-acre cornfield. In saving 4,500 barrels of oil a year and disposing of 1,500 tons of waste, Rockwell's device is expected to pay for itself in four years.

Connecticut has earmarked $250 million to build 10 facilities to transform 5/6 of the state's solid waste into 1/10 of its electrical needs. Even the Tennessee Valley Authority is studying ways to extract some 7% of its juice from junk. And firms in Lubbock, Tex., and Oklahoma City have agreed to turn loose billions of microbes on thousands of tons of cattle manure scooped up from feedlots in order to produce methane gas.

Possibly the biggest obstacle to widespread use of waste fuel is the presence of that quintessential 20th-century artifact known as plastic. While vegetation, flesh, paper, even bones and iron all decompose in the ground, plastic lives on. Until scientists figure out a way to make plastic biodegradable or until our society breaks its attachment to the synthetic compound, the cost of separating it out of the garbage pile promises to keep the system financially out of reach to many.

Some futurologists feel that one answer might be to cultivate trash specifically for its energy potential. "Garbage farms" may not replace today's wheatfields, but certain plant strains may be developed solely for use as a fuel.

Unlike fossil fuels, garbage undoubtedly will be in abundance for years to come. The American trash heap alone is expected to swell to 440 million tons a year by 1980, excluding sewage.

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