Washington residents are really good at recycling. We recycle nearly 50 percent of our waste, well above the national average of 34.6 percent.
That’s something to celebrate this Earth Day.
But what about the stuff that isn’t recycled, recovered or reused? Things such as plastic forks, discarded carpet and broken toys present a bigger challenge. In fact, here in Washington, each of us creates about 3½ pounds of garbage every day, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.
Just as we’ve figured out how to successfully reclaim the valuable material from our soda cans, old newspapers and yogurt containers, innovative green technology now offers a way to get a sustainable benefit even from our trash.
How? By extracting energy from our garbage. This is happening at facilities across the country, including Waste Management’s Columbia Ridge Landfill across the Columbia River in rural Gilliam County, Oregon.
Here’s how it works: Garbage decomposes inside the landfill, creating a gas, which is collected, treated and then used to run engines that generate electricity for the power grid.
At Columbia Ridge, the system collects 5,400 cubic feet of gas per minute, enough to power approximately 12,500 homes in Washington state.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has even endorsed the use of landfill gas as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels. The EPA classifies landfill gas as a “renewable,” the same as wind and solar.
Extracting energy from garbage also reduces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It is a constant and reliable resource that is not dependent upon whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
Beyond generating electricity, new technology makes it possible to convert landfill gas to natural gas, producing a cleaner burning fuel for cars and trucks.
Nationwide, Waste Management already runs nearly 6,000 recycling and garbage trucks on compressed natural gas for a smaller carbon footprint. Beginning this year, the company started powering some of our trucks in the Pacific Northwest with natural gas recovered from landfills.
Over the past two decades, Waste Management has spent $600 million to advance garbage-to-energy technologies. We have invested in and incubated dozens of innovative processes. As an example, we are now partnering with local governments and businesses to make food waste part of our future energy mix.
That’s not to say that there aren’t still hurdles to overcome. Most of the emerging technologies are still prohibitively expensive. There are also challenges in scaling up processes. A technology that works at a pilot test site may prove unreliable and even generate negative environmental impacts when scaled up to meet the needs of an entire community or region.
Still, as we celebrate Earth Day and what we’ve accomplished, let’s also look for new ways technology can bring us together. Let’s turn our trash into a valuable, renewable energy resource.
Michelle Metzler is Waste Management’s team leader for public education and outreach. Learn more about lifecycle thinking at sustainability.wm.com.