Smells Like Sustainability

Video by Chanelle Havey, Gabrielle Fernando and Michael Katz

For sustainability lovers, deciding whether something belongs in the trash or recycling bin is routine - we try to recycle what we can, and the rest, sadly, goes to the trash. But what happens after the trash collectors have picked up your scraps on the sidewalk? Most of the time, the trash ends up in a landfill. But now some of it might be going right back to your house? That's right, your house, as power. Companies for the last several decades have been working toward perfecting waste to energy facilities around the globe. In the Washington, DC area alone Convanta Energy  owns three facilities that collectively power about 120,000 homes by incinerating trash. trash to energy conversion So in brief, how in the world does this work?

  1. The trash is brought to the facility
  2. The trash is burned
  3. The heat created boils water
  4. The water creates steam that turns a turbine
  5. Electricity is produced and put on the grid

(For those who might get a little confused about this long process, Convanta kindly created a step-by-step.) More recently, gasification is becoming more popular in trash to energy facilities. This process doesn't actually burn the trash down, but rather breaks the trash down with heat and oxygen to create syngas. This chemical combination has the ability to also create energy and does not release pollutants into the air like incineration does. http://www.budgetgreenliving.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/LANDFILL.jpgCurrently, there are 89 waste to energy facilities in the country producing about 2,500 megawatt hours of electricity. According to Covanta, about 10 megawatt hours of electricity can fully power approximately 20,000 homes. That means that the US is powering about 5,000,000 homes with trash right now. How does this compare to other countries? Currently 54% of trash in the united states ends up in landfills. In Denmark, only 4% makes it to a landfill. So clearly we still have a long way to go. But most importantly, what about that smell? Don't worry - they have fans everywhere sucking it up so they don't have unhappy neighbors. To the workers, after day 26  its starts smelling like roses. - Chanelle Havey

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.