The garbage shortage for Northern Europe’s waste-to-energy plants.
The practice of burning garbage to generate electricity and heat has become a big business in Northern Europe and parts of North America. So much so, that municipalities like Oslo are now importing garbage because they simply do not have enough to keep production going. In theory, just importing garbage may sound like a simple solution where everyone wins; cities in the UK or US get rid of garbage while Oslo or Stockholm’s waste-to-energy (WtE) plants get the resources they need. But not all garbage is the same and there is an underlying environmental question that comes with this trend of burning waste that may or may not be harmful to the environment when burned.
There are approximately 431 WtE plants in Northern Europe, compared to 89 in the United States. Countries like Norway, Sweden, Germany, France and the Netherlands have invested heavily in converting waste to energy over the past decades, a practice that has been met with little resistance. Most of the previously mentioned nations have very intensive recycling and garbage separation schemes that help keep the more dangerous garbage from going to the fire. The plants themselves have an array of safeguards for filtering and cleaning emissions before they enter the atmosphere. Despite criticism from environmental groups across the board, city as well as plant managers tout what they call very environmentally conscious waste burning.
The problem, as some from the environmental and scientific communities have pointed out, is when the appetite for waste burning becomes so great that garbage starts to come from far away just to keep the plants producing at capacity. Garbage from some countries, like Italy for example that became famous years ago for garbage disposal problems, is not as thoroughly screened and separated as Scandinavian garbage. This could mean more toxic substances going into the plant and subsequent pollutants that filtering systems can’t handle, getting out into the atmosphere.
The other issue is the long term question of what is more important for a city and the environment, reducing waste or gathering up as much garbage as possible? Those concerned with the air and their environment insist the priority should be less waste. Those in the booming garbage business say, we’ve got the technology, bring on more trash!
Photo: Colt Group / flickr