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Garbage – Recycle, Incinerate, Synthesize

Many of us remember the saga of the garbage barge named the Mobro 4000. In 1987 it was loaded with garbage from the Islip landfill in New York City and set sail to deposit its load out of state. This was a common occurrence, as land was at a premium in the city. However, the owner of the Mobro 4000 failed to finalize the contract before embarking and was soon stuck at sea with nowhere to go. For six months, major news networks led their broadcast with images of this lonely garbage barge wandering up and down the coast, becoming the poster child for wasteful lifestyles and what activists claimed was a crisis of overflowing landfills. Transferring a city’s garbage out of state was a common practice, but the Mobro 4000’s sloppy paperwork problem led to a rallying cry for recycling.

Today, municipal recycling programs are fairly ubiquitous. Cities provide not only garbage pickup but also a separate garbage can for recyclables. Feeling like a responsible environmental steward has never been so easy – just throw all your paper, plastic and aluminum into a special garbage bin and roll it out to the curb each week where other good stewards collect, sort and recycle it.

But much has happened in the world of garbage since the Mobro 4000 was stranded at sea three decades ago. Recycling has always been predicated on our ability to efficiently reuse recycled material. Much of our recycled plastic goes to China, where it is used to make toothbrushes and carpet, and our shredded paper goes to Mexico, where it is used to make things like toilet paper. The greatest deciding factor in what is recycled and what goes to the landfill is profitability. And profits from recycling can change – and are changing – based on various global factors. This means not everything you put in the special bin on your curb will actually be recycled. If the price isn’t right, it’ll end up in the landfill anyway.

Which maybe isn’t such a bad thing. For some time now landfills have been used to generate power.

On New York’s Staten Island sits a 2,000-acre landfill known as Fresh Kills. It operated for 50 years and was New York City’s largest landfill. Some of its largest mounds of garbage soared to 200 feet tall. Fresh Kills closed in 2001, but it’s still serving the city. All that garbage is decaying and producing gas, much of it methane, which can be processed and put into the natural gas pipeline. Methane gas recovery from the old Fresh Kills landfill produces enough energy every day to heat 30,000 homes and makes up to $5 million a year for the city.

Garbage is producing energy another way – landfill incinerators. The world’s best recyclers – Sweden and Norway – incinerate so much trash they are actually importing it from other countries. While bans on plastic bags are gathering momentum in many municipalities, including in Utah, Sweden has no such ban, incinerating many of the bags instead. Norway’s capital, Oslo, heats half the city and most of its schools by burning garbage. In fact, northern European trash-burning countries have their sights set on the U.S. garbage market to fuel its 700-million-ton incineration capacity. Today, rather than capturing the world’s attention as a symbol of environmental despair, the Mobro 4000 might be welcomed with open arms.

Dig Deeper:

Washington Post: American Recycling Is Stalling And The Big Blue Bin Is One Reason Why

NY Times: Oslo Copes With Shortage of Garbage

Article: Mobro 4000

NPR Planet Money Podcast: Trash!

NY Times: From Garbage to Energy at Fresh Kills

CBS News: Waste Not, Turning Garbage Into Energy

Salt Lake Tribune: New Company Aims to Turn Sandy’s Trash Into Power

Utah Department of Environmental Quality: Fact Sheet

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