Tag Archives: energy

Breaking Out of the Trash Cycle

For many of us, our lives are ruled by routine. We wake up, and have a routine for everything – from whether we brush our teeth or wash our faces first, to which route we travel, to our workout regimens at the gym. Some people prefer eggs in the morning, some prefer cereal. But in today’s world – there is one routine most people can agree on. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This trifecta of sustainability has been engrained in our minds for years. But sometimes, something more is needed. What if this isn’t enough? What if I want waffles one morning?

Okay, okay. The real question at hand here is this: What do we do when we’ve exhausted the “reduce, reuse, recycle” routine? What is the next step in sustainability? There are several sources of renewable energy, such as solar power and wind power, but not every day is sunny with a billow in your sail. The folks over at Covanta Energy are offering an additional solution to the ongoing effort of sustainability – Energy-from-Waste (EfW).

Trash being sent to an EfW facility is happy trash!

Trash being sent to an EfW facility is happy trash!

With 35 EfW facilities in the United States, Covanta offers trash producers a long-term alternative to filling landfills with waste. Annually, Covanta processes over 17 million tons of waste, and produces about 9 million megawatt hours of clean, renewable electricity. In addition, Covanta produces 10 billion pounds of steam that are sold back into the industry, and recycles 400,000 tons of metal per year – that’s enough to build over 275,000 hybrid vehicles! To break it down, each ton of waste processed at an EfW facility like Covanta produces approximately 550 kilowatt hours of electricity and about 50 pounds of recycled metal. Unlike other methods of creating renewable energy, our country’s constant stream of trash allows for a constant supply of clean energy. However, EfW does not compete with recycling efforts. Rather, Covanta and the like are an add-on to the aforementioned trifecta — so we can now think of it as: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover.

In addition to the energy produced, we should consider the the impact of EfW facilities in terms of climate change. Approximately 63% of global warming is attributable to carbon dioxide emissions, closely linked to the generation of energy. In conserving our energy use, we decrease the demand for fossil fuels, and in turn reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Recycling and reusing will prevent trash from ending up in landfills, which  are hot sites for the production of methane, which accounts of 18% of greenhouse gasses. But for the remaining waste – waste that arrives at EfW facilities – this trash actually has a negative impact on climate change.The EfW industry reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 20 million tons each year! For each ton of trash that enters an EfW facility, one less ton of carbon dioxide is released as a combined result of avoided landfill methane emissions, fossil fuel power generation, and the transportation of waste and metals production.

Energy from Waste facility in Newhaven

Energy from Waste facility in Newhaven

So let’s review. EfW produces clean, renewable energy, creates industrial-friendly steam, recycles metal, and has a negative effect on climate change. So alongside the daily sustainability grind of reduce, reuse, recycle, we are now equipped to continue our efforts for a greener tomorrow, with the trash we can’t recycle as our weapon. I guess you could say Covanta and EfW facilities are really thinking outside the box… or outside the landfill.

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Smells like…Sustainability!

For the sustainability lovers,  deciding whether something belongs in the trash or recycling bin is the last thought given to their garbage. But what happens after the trash collectors have picked up your scraps on the side walk?

Most of the time, the trash ends up here. A  landfill. Ever consider that maybe some of your energy is going here? That’s right, your house. Companies for the last several decades have been working toward perfecting waste to energy facilities around the globe.

In the Washington, DC area alone, Convanta Energy  owns three facilities that collectively power about 120,000 homes by incinerating trash.

trash to energy conversion

trash to energy conversion

So in brief, how in the world does this work?

  1. The trash is brought to the facility 
  2. The trash is burned
  3. The heat created boils water
  4. The water creates steam that turns a turbine
  5. Electricity is produced and put on the grid

(For those who might get a little confused about this long process, Convanta kindly created a step-by-step if you are looking for even more details).

More recently, gasification is becoming more popular in trash to energy facilities. This process doesn’t actually burn the trash down, but rather breaks the trash down with heat and oxygen to create syngas. This chemical combination has the ability to also create energy and does not release pollutants into the air like incineration does.

https://i2.wp.com/www.budgetgreenliving.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/LANDFILL.jpgCurrently, there are 89 waste to energy facilities in the country producing about 2,500 megawatt hours of electricity. According to Covanta, about 10 megawatt hours of electricity can fully power approximately 20,000 homes. For those of you who aren’t math geniuses and calculate that in your head, that means that the US is powering about 5,000,000 homes with trash right now.

How does this compare to other countries? Well currently, 54% of trash in the united states ends up in landfills. In Denmark, only 4% makes it to a landfill. So clearly we still have a long way to go.

But most importantly, what about that smell? Don’t worry, they have fans everywhere sucking it up so they don’t have unhappy neighbors. To the workers, after day 26  its starts smelling like roses.

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More space, more stuff inside the American household

Ever wonder why you have so much stuff?

Take a look right now around your bedroom, your office, your kitchen even.

Every home has a room like this. Photo credit: puuikibeach on Flickr (CC license)

As your eyes scan the room, do the questions “What is this and why do I own it?” enter your thoughts?

Are you already deciding what’s got to go next spring cleaning?

Seriously though, why do we have so much stuff?

One part to answering that question is first considering the size of your room or house. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The bigger our space, the more stuff we can physically fit in it.

And that’s precisely what’s going on . The average floor space of a new American house has gotten dramatically larger in just one generation, resulting in a high consumption of goods and energy.

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson’s Who Turned Out the Lights (2009) states that in 1973, the average floor space of an American home was 1,660 square feet. It has since increased 52 percent to 2,521 square feet in 2007. However, this was happening during a period when the average American family was actually getting smaller.

Huh? You can infer then that families do not seek bigger homes to house more children but to house more of their gadgets and gizmos aplenty.

Credit: DIYLOL.com

You may not know about the whozits and whatzits Hipster Ariel uses underwater but we above ground buy and use things now that didn’t even exist 30 years ago (see table below). If it did exist like a personal computer, the average American could not afford it.

Credit: Who Turned Out the Lights by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

That’s all changed now. Microwave, dishwasher, TV, air-conditioning–those are the least obscure items in your home I’m sure.  The U.S.’s total consumer debt also affirms that Americans know how to consume. As of May 2011, total consumer debt in the U.S. was at $2.43 trillion. Total consumer debt per household averaged $16,046 which was down from $35,245 prior to the economic depression in 2008.

When people live in bigger places, they will also naturally have more rooms to light, heat and cool. Not only might our vast consumption of goods and services dangerous in accumulating debt, but our high consumption of energy also means trouble for the average household’s carbon footprint. Dishwashers, laundry machines, microwaves, computers, TVs–all these are used daily and eat up energy.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “in 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 11,496 kWh, an average of 958 kilowatthours (kWh) per month.”

Looking back, every home I lived in was larger than the last, which only meant a bigger yard sale in the spring, autumn or both. It also meant more space to clean, more floors to vacuum. As a young girl who disliked weekly chores, I would have been okay with living in a smaller house. Would you consider living in a smaller house to avoid hoarding unnecessary stuff and exhausting lots of energy on keeping unoccupied rooms lit, warm, or cool? I know I am.

If you want to talk more, follow me at @pennibean. #thinkFWD

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