When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, we didn't have garbage service or handy dumpsters; instead, we used to handle trash all by ourselves. Every week, we would load up the car, drive a mile or two, go down a long road, and dump our refuse into a big hole in the earth. While our neighborhood, "Cannon Ridge," had once been the highest spot in our area, it was ultimately eclipsed by "Mount Trashmore," the neighborhood landfill.
Years later, after the county covered the huge mound of trash with a layer of dirt, a friend and I went out for a walk on our local monument to garbage. Dropping a match, we watched as it made a little flare; the rotting garbage was producing methane, an explosive gas. This was not an uncommon situation in Northern Virginia. In fact, the Lorton reformatory, a nearby prison that was located close to a landfill, acquired a measure of regional fame for its occasional methane explosions.
With this background, I wasn't too surprised to discover that there is a program underfoot to tap the combustive power of garbage. Clean Tech Biofuels, a Missouri company, is working on developing plants where it hopes to produce ethanol, which could then be used to power cars. It intends to collect garbage, separate it, break down the organic waste, and ferment "cellulosic ethanol," which could then be used as a fuel. Its proprietary method uses "acid hydrolysis," in which acid is used to convert the carbon inside the garbage into sugars, which can then be fermented. Other companies, including BlueFire Ethanol and Coskata, are pursuing similar methods of ethanol creation. Coskata, in fact, has set itself a goal of producing 100 gallons of ethanol from each dry ton of waste.
In addition to the numerous ethanol-fermentation companies that are competing for garbage, there are other companies that are using trash to produce energy. One of the most notable of these is Energy Answers International, whose SEMASS plant in Rochester, Massachusetts burns trash to generate electricity. Much of the leftover ash, in turn, gets used to make building materials. SEMASS currently is able to produce 590 kwh from each ton of garbage. Also, unlike traditional landfills, SEMASS doesn't poison the groundwater of the surrounding area; in fact, it has zero wastewater generation. Perhaps best of all, by burning the garbage, the plant reduces the overall landfill by almost 90%.
Of course, between the ethanol producers, SEMASS, and other recycling efforts, it's not hard to see a future in which there won't be enough trash to meet the needs of America's energy producers. However, having lived through the age of landfills, garbage strikes, and Rudy Giuliani's garbage barge to nowhere, I think that future looks pretty bright. I yearn for the day when ethanol companies and trash burning plants fight over who gets the opportunity to clean up Mount Trashmore!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He hopes that Q-tip recycling will never come to pass.
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