The idea of obtaining energy from garbage is an enticing one, not only because it makes the garbage problem ‘disappear,’ but it also provides some jobs and a local supply of electricity.
While Nanaimo city council recently sent a shot across the bow of Metro Vancouver’s plans to have us burn their garbage, we could still end up having their, or our own, incinerator. The regional districts of Nanaimo, Cowichan and Victoria began considering incinerating our garbage in 2008.
Certainly incineration is superior to landfilling, by most standards. It provides electricity (and heat, if wished), greatly reduces the far more dangerous climate-altering methane gas, and new sites don’t have to be created every few decades.
But there is another side to this story. Apart from dangerous emissions (which can never be fully prevented), incineration is actually a net energy waster. The energy captured by an incinerator is nowhere close to the amount of energy imbedded in the fuels used.
The most extreme example is glass: it requires a tremendous amount of energy to create glass, but it renders no energy when it is incinerated. At the other end of the scale, paper obviously burns well. Even so, the amount of energy invested into that paper by the sun, soil and manufacturing processes (not to mention transportation) is many times that produced when the paper is burned. Only the solar component contains renewable energy.
In actuality, burning garbage is a net energy waster, even if all of the recoverable heat produced is used.
The greatest difficulty in burning garbage is that it destroys the resources used to produce those now-discarded items. These resources will never be recovered from the air, water and soil. It means we have to spend increasing amounts of energy mining and fertilizing the raw materials, many of which are in limited quantities. This will leave future generations without many of the raw materials required to live a modern life.
The answers? Consume less, package better, and separate the various types of products in our homes and businesses so that they can more easily be reused, re-purposed, recycled, remanufactured and composted. Did you know that more gold is recovered from waste than is mined?
This approach better utilizes the waste’s embedded energy, creates many times as many jobs, improves the air, water and soil quality, and saves the mayor and council from being bombarded by thousands of e-mails, letters and presentations – itself a considerable saver of energy.