At a rate of 4.38 pounds a day, you may be creating 1,600 pounds of garbage a year.
Close to half of all of that waste is sent to landfills while 34.3 percent is recycled. With landfill use controversial and recycling becoming increasingly expensive, what to do with our garbage is a question we should ask.
Where are we going? To garbage tradeoffs.
Garbage In But Not Garbage Out
As the home of a state-of-the-art waste-to-energy (WTE) plant, West Palm Beach, Florida can say garbage in, electricity out. The West Palm Beach plant is the first new incineration facility in the U.S. in 20 years. Able to transform up to 3,000 tons of trash a day into a power source for thousands of houses, it even is qualified by the EPA to receive pollution credits because its net reduction of harmful emissions is beneficial. Yes, the plant creates some air pollution. However, the trash it eliminates would have generated even more.
This is the new West Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility:
The Garbage Debate
Still though, waste-to-energy is controversial.
On the plus side, compared to landfills, WTE uses less land and emits less pollution. Compared to coal-burning power plants it uses fewer non-renewable resources. As for money, WTE requires massive upfront investment ($672 million for the Florida plant) but eventually becomes fiscally sound because of the electricity they sell. Finally, using Scandinavian countries and Germany as examples, WTE appears not to diminish a recycling commitment.
Their opponents (sometimes called zero-wasters), say WTE does indeed divert recyclables, it is less efficient than coal and natural gas, and the data on plant emissions are unrealistically low. The bottom line for the environmentalists who oppose WTE is that landfills are a better evil.
Our Bottom Line: Tradeoffs
As always, a decision about how best to treat the environment involves tradeoffs. With recycling becoming more expensive (as we saw in a previous post) its opportunity cost is rising. Not all bad, even landfills have tradeoffs. Managing landfills near Portland, Oregon, Waste Management captures methane that powers homes and says that a ton of waste can become a “basket of resources.” For West Palm Beach, the choice was between the new WTE plant and more landfill.
And for us, 4.38 pounds of garbage mean that we make environmental tradeoffs throughout each day.