Trash More Powerful Than Coal

on October 12, 2011 at 2:30 PM

As consumers buy more stuff, they also throw more things away. And as the world faces an energy crisis, developers are increasingly looking to that garbage for power.

A group of scientists from the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) at Columbia University found that non-recycled plastics and municipal sold wastes could be significant American sources of power. In a study–funded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC)–published on Wednesday, the group found that waste energy was significant enough to wean America off foreign imported oil.

“Plastics have a significantly higher energy value than coal,” said the study’s author, Dr. Marco Castaldi, assistant professor of Earth & Environment Engineering at Columbia. Waste-to-methane energy is a “good domestic form of energy,” he said and one that has minimal environmental impacts.

The study estimated that if all non-recycled plastic in US landfills was converted annually to energy, it could produce 52 million MWh of electricity, or enough power for 5.2 million homes annually. If all municipal solid waste was sent to waste-to-energy facilities, it could produce 162 MWh of electricity, or enough to power 16.2 million homes annually.

Various waste-to-energy plants have already cropped up around the country, including a 3.2 MW landfill gas-to-energy facility, at the Eagle Valley Recycling and Disposal Facility in Orion, Michigan. Read more: From Waste, Let There Be Light.

Methane-to-energy company FlexEnergy announced its continued success on Wednesday, with the opening of its new worldwide headquarters in Irvine, California. Waste and trash emit methane, a gas that can be used for energy generation.

Last month the Orange County Board of Supervisors selected FlexEnergy subsidiary, Flex OC Renewables, to install and operate a 1 MW landfill gas-to-electricity system near the Santiago Canyon Landfill in Orange, less than 15 minutes drive from Irvine.

“We expect to continue our rapid growth in the coming year,” said FlexEnergy CEO Joe Perry in a statement.

FlexEnergy has specialized in developing gas turbines that specifically operate on either natural gas or methane. The turbines can therefore be used quite easily next to a landfill to produce electricity from waste.

Plastics have the added value of being made from oil and natural gas. New technologies are emerging that would convert these plastics back into crude oil and other types of fuels for powering cars and vehicles.

“Whenever possible, plastics should be recycled, said ACC Vice President of Plastics Steve Russell. “But when plastics aren’t recycled, there is tremendous opportunity to recover this abundant energy source to power our homes, vehicles and businesses.”

Some Americans have even been inspired to collect local dog waste and convert it into electricity. Read more: A Brighter Way For Dog Waste.