From trash to energy

Overflowing trash bins

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Every year in this country we create about 250 million tons of trash. "Municipal Solid Waste" is the EPA's term. That's a bit more than four pounds of garbage per person per day. All of it has to go some place once it's picked up at the curb on collection days. Mostly, our trash goes into landfills. As it happens, the biggest landfill in the United States sits not far from downtown Los Angeles. It takes in 13,000 tons of garbage a day. But it's filling up. It's going to have to close in two years, unless we can put our waste to work.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: There are people who look at garbage and don't see garbage. They see an untapped resource. Just ask this guy:

Mister Trash: Though I may be trash, I am anything but useless!

That would be Mister Trash. He's an animated milk carton that greets you when you visit...

Mister Trash: The Commerce Refuse to Energy Facility. Come on along!

Commerce is a city just south of Los Angeles, and the site of a 25-year-old program that turns trash into electricity -- enough to power about 15,000 homes at any given time.

I leave Mr. Trash and get a real tour.

Mr. TrashHey wait a minute! I'm still talking!

Sounds of machinery

Garbage trucks dump their loads into a pit, and a giant claw picks up huge, smelly mouthfuls. There's packaging, a ream of carpet that unravels endlessly, some old shirts and blue jeans.

Jonathan Iorga: Actually, we like fabric because it burns cleanly and it burns pretty hot.

Plant engineer Jonathan Iorga shows me the huge furnace where it all gets burned. I look through a tiny window into a 30-foot cavern of orange flame. It's the biggest fire I've ever seen.

Eve Troeh: Whoa!

Iorga: That's our own little manmade Dante's Inferno.

Troeh: And is that just burning all day, all night?

Iorga: All day, all night.

And the heat powers turbines that make electricity. The plant sells it to the local utility, says Iorga, and that makes the operation about break even.

Iorga: It's a power plant instead of using fossil fuel, it uses trash for its fuel.

But, the technology never really took off in the state, or across the U.S., according to Vivian Thomson. She studies trash policy at the University of Virginia and says there were a couple reasons for that. One was toxicity.

Vivian Thomson: The fear over dioxins and furans..

Fears that were overblown because of the ghosts of old, dirty incinerators. The other factor was harder to overcome.

Thomson: We have loads of land.

Thomson says instead of innovating with trash, the U.S. has opened mega landfills, further away from city centers. She says that's a shame.

Thomson: You're literally throwing money and energy into a big pit in the ground. There are dollars in trash. Trash is energy.

While the U.S. has dug deeper pits, Japan, Germany and other nations in Europe have built hundreds of trash power plants, even in the middle of neighborhoods.

Greig Smith: We saw one in Japan, that they use the heating process to heat water, and they built a community pool with it. Another one built a senior center next door to the plant.

That's Los Angeles City Council Member Greig Smith. He took a sort of world tour of trash-to-energy plants, and he wrote an epic report that's earned him a nickname...

Smith: Mr. Trash, not something politicians aspire to, but...

Smith's pushing southern California to take another look at waste-to-energy, and to build three new plants -- using new methods, like boiling trash in big, metal vessels.

Smith: What comes out of it is a very fine compost, that you can use in agricultural purposes.

The technology does cost a lot upfront. But over time, L.A. County will have to haul its waste farther and farther into the desert. That's going to cost a lot more, too.

But Smith says a potentially bigger obstacle than the money, says Smith, is public opinion. Americans simply don't want their trash in their own backyards. He says, more real world examples of the technology could convert the public.

Smith: You bring people in, you show 'em what you're doing, let them see it, touch it, feel it and walking out saying, "You know what, this isn't so bad after all."

Our animated milk carton Mr. Trash is certainly happy with his conversion.

Mr. Trash: You know what? I like this higher state of existence! Because no one can call me useless trash anymore!

In Los Angeles, I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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