Solid waste landfills present a clear and present potential threat to human health as well as a threat to our environment. In addition to potential leakage of toxics, landfills also provide problems to our health and environment through toxic air emissions. More than ten toxic gases are released from landfills, particularly the toxic gas of methane. Methane gas is a naturally occurring gas created by the decay of organic matter inside a landfill. As it is formed, it builds up pressure and then begins to move through the soil, often leaking into the water system. Medical research has linked proximity to landfill sites to adverse health effects, e.g. increased risk of birth defects. Methane gas is also a potent greenhouse gas 21 times stronger than carbon dioxide in global warming.
In the United States alone more than 54% of our Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)is dumped into landfills. This number is even larger in some foreign countries where, in many instances, waste has to be shipped offshore. Solving the waste problem requires innovative and creative solutions that dispose of the waste in a safe manner, preserve our natural resources, and provide cost effective affordable technology. Waste to energy, WTE is an effective way to convert the problems of municipal solid waste disposal, to an important source of renewable energy.
Some environmentalists advocate, zero wastes, which is unfeasible. For example, only 20% of plastics can be recycled for technical and economic reasons. Every ton of MSW has the energy of about a barrel of oil, and is a renewable source of energy, because it contains mostly biomass. Burning MSW as a renewable fuel has only 5% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to landfills, and minimizes the transport of MSW to distant polluting landfills. WTE facilities also increase material recycling, especially in recovering metals and providing construction by products. Europe provides heat and energy to about 30 million people from WTE facilities and some advanced EU nations that use this technology, have over 60% recycling. Thus WTE is good way to solve our waste disposal problems, generate renewable energy, increase recycling, and move towards our goal of zero wastes to landfills.
Jack D. Lauber PE BCEE
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