Friday, December 2nd, 2011

The U.S. Capitol Demonstrates How Waste-to-Energy is Done

A tip of the hat to Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), for the article he published on November 28 in Roll Call adknowledging how the U.S. Capitol recently showed leadership in boosting the waste-to-energy process. On November 1st, the Capitol campus began sending as much as 90 percent of its non-recycled solid waste to Covanta Energy’s waste-to-energy facility across the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA.

The U.S. Capitol Building.

Non-recyclable trash from the U.S. Capitol now goes to a waste-to-fuel plant, not into a landfill.

Before the decision to do that by the Architect of the Capitol in collaboration with the House Administration Committee, the fuel traditionally referred to as waste had gone to landfills. Dooley noted that in 2010 more than 5300 tons of non-recycled waste was taken from the Congressional facilities, but instead of being buried the Capitol trash now will create enough energy to power a House of Representatives office building for several months. (Having recently been in one of those buildings on behalf of members of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, I can testify that those buildings are very large.

Plastics of various types are, of course, part of the Capitol trash. SPI and Dooley’s ACC have long made clear that although recycling plastics is always preferable, when energy can be recaptured from trash that will not be recycled, burying it makes no sense. The energy value of plastics is greater than that of coal, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prefers waste-to-energy over landfills.

Dooley quotes an EPA finding that waste-to-energy makes electricity “with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” He then helpfully adds, “Yes, you read that right.” He must have been reading my mind.

Many SPI staff members have detailed the merits of waste-to-energy on this blog, for example here, here, and here. In

Covanta Energy's waste-to-energy plant, Alexandria, VA

The Covanta Energy waste-to-fuel facility in Alexandria, VA

addition, the SPI website contains many articles spelling out the technology’s superiority to burying fuel in a landfill. Lately waste-to-energy is getting longer legs.

In a recent interview, Greg Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), who clearly favors turning waste to energy, was equally clear that the general public has a mindset problem: We think of this trash as waste that we need to hide or bury, so we hide or bury it.

I’m sure that SPI President/CEO Bill Carteaux could only guess at how many times he has spoken to business and industry groups in favor of waste-to-energy rather than waste-to-landfill. That has been the policy of SPI for some time, and likewise for ACC.

Lacking a statistical survey, I’ll estimate that waste-to-energy makes sense to nearly everyone in the plastics industry. It should make sense to everyone in the U.S. but it doesn’t. Some are concerned about environmental impact, regardless of the EPA statement above. Others take the NIMBY position – not in my back yard.

Those two factors could explain why Western Europe, with a population slightly larger than the U.S., has over 400 waste-to-energy plants, and more in the planning stages, while the U.S. has only 86. But to me the mindset problem Greg Wilkinson described is even more fundamental. So then, a quick rethink: That stuff’s not waste, it’s fuel. Pass it on.

One Response to “The U.S. Capitol Demonstrates How Waste-to-Energy is Done”

  1. So true that it’s hard to get adults and younger people to accept how helpful it is to recycle. I wonder if the schools are trying enough to make impression on the kids of the importance of using materials over, for things that are useful. What wonderful and amazing ideas people have come up with. It not only saves our land to recycle but adds whole new products that are so artistic and innovative. I love the whole idea. I don’t weave but make wreathes with clothes hangers and plastic bags. I’d love to learn how to make some of the great ideas that I’ve seen here.

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