January 22, 2010

Good news on the garbage front – methane from Seattle’s garbage to heat homes

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I wrote recently about the folly of shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of Hawaiian garbage to landfills in central Washington. I wrote that the low cost – $99 per 100,000 tons, enables what is so clearly the unsustainable lifestyle that so many of us on this planet live. rita_hibbardwebThere are other issues – the garbage is shrink-wrapped, as if this will somehow prevent transmission of non-native species. As readers pointed out, excess packaging creates excess trash. And in that piece, I mentioned that Seattleites, not just Honolulu residents, must feel this pain, because our garbage also is shipped out of our backyard – not by barge, but by rail, to central Oregon, where it is piled in someone else’s big empty backyard.

Some good news is emerging from that big empty backyard this week. Turns out that methane gas created as garbage decomposes is being created for domestic use at half the cost of wind power and being sold back to Seattle from the same landfill in Oregon.

The energy plant in Arlington, Ore., where Seattle sends about 400,000 tons of trash each year,  provides Seattle about 5.78 average megawatts – enough to power 5,625 homes, writes Emily Heffter in the Seattle Times. The energy produced costs half as much as wind power. What’s more, the city expects to be producing more renewable energy in this manner. By early 2012, writes Larry Lange in seattlepi.com, the city expects to begin using power produced from its West Point sewage treatment plant, where it will build another generator.

The effort is part of how the city is meeting the goals of Initiative 937, which requires that large utilities get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. This is gas that previously just leaked out and was was burned off,  Heffter writes.

In the past, the landfill burned off the methane produced by decomposing garbage. Now the methane is captured and piped to a plant where it powers combustion engines that generate electricity

It’s an important first step in turning around a process that began 19 years ago when Seattle first began sending trash to Oregon. The 700-acre Columbia Ridge Landfill in Arlington gets about 2 million tons of trash a year from Washington and Oregon.

Feel good, but not too good. It’s also important to interrupt that stream, to intervene before those rail cars leave Seattle or the barges leave Honolulu. The more each of us recycles and keeps material out of those rail cars, the better. The less packaging on the stuff we buy, the better. The less we buy, the better.  And so on. But if we can burn a little of the methane and heat a home instead of burning that methane off just to get rid of it, yeah, I’m for that.

— Rita Hibbard

One thought on “Good news on the garbage front – methane from Seattle’s garbage to heat homes

  1. In the seventies I visited a solid waste recycling plant in the middle of the industrial section of Rome, Italy. Besides people putting their garbage in plastic bags, nobody ever toughed the garbage again and later showed up in different end products.
    The reason all this was possible was the legislation passed under Mussolini, during the Second World War that gave paper mills a special tax subsidy to use the recycled paper for the production mostly of carton and brown paper.
    According to the company that run this operation, this recycling was only possible because of this tax incentive and that otherwise they would bury themselves into paper pulp, while now all the other products that were recycled were pure profit for the company. Italy for the same reason was also the first country where the harbors are swept for spilled oil.
    Studies to initiate similar solid waste recycling project failed, as the paper industries do not get such subsidies to use this recycled paper pulp and thus stick to their paper pulp from trees. Without any incentives for the paper industries to use this recycled paper pulp, massive recycling of all solid waste, necessary for the future to recover natural resources, will have to wait. When we run out of landfills, as they have in Europe, the only other solution is incineration, with all the air pollution it will create.
    If methane gas is collected from landfills (this gas is probably 65% methane and 35% carbon dioxide and a little bit of hydrogen sulfide and other gasses) it should be used for heating and when used to generate electricity, it certainly requires further treatment to remove especially the hydrogen sulfide.

    Even tough all this sounds poli-ecological correct, it probably is not economical sustainable without taxpayer money. Before governments spent any public money, each program first should be investigated on three criteria:
    1. What is its impact on public health? (air pollution)
    2. What is its impact on the world’s biosphere? (global climate change)
    3. Can it be stored and used only when needed? (no unnecessary waste of energy)

    Would that really be too much to ask?