One man’s trash is another man’s treasure…and sometimes, energy. According to The New York Times, some European countries are using trash to generate clean energy. The U.S. is, for all intents and purposes, not.

Rather than shipping trash off to a distant landfill or simply burning it in a traditional incinerator, new types of plants that convert local trash into heat and electricity are popping up all over Europe, with Denmark, Germany, and The Netherlands leading the way.

The Times’ story says, “Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from [an incinerator’s] smokestack only a decade ago.”

Denmark, a country of only 5.5 million citizens, has 29 such plants serving 98 municipalities. The Horsholm municipality, which is located in the Copenhagen Capital Region, depends on these plants for 80 percent of its heat and 20 percent of its electricity. Even more interesting is that these waste-to-energy plants are placed in the communities they serve – be they affluent or not.

New homebuyers in Denmark have no problem whatsoever with these plants being so close to their homes. Hans Rast, president of the homeowners’ association in Horsholm, told The New York Times, “What they like is that they look out and see the forest.” (The living rooms in this enclave of town houses face fields and trees, while the plant is roughly some 400 yards over a back fence that borders the homes’ carports.) The lower heating costs don’t hurt, either.

Why are waste-to-energy plants not catching on in the U.S.?

According to the NY Times, “Matt Hale, director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, said the reasons that waste-to-energy plants had not caught on nationally were the relative abundance of cheap landfills in a large country, opposition from state officials who feared the plants could undercut recycling programs and a ‘negative public perception.’”

New York City paid $307 million last year to export in excess of four million tons of waste to these cheap landfills, most of which were in distant states.

Despite North Carolina State University scientists throwing their weight behind waste-to-energy plants after a 2009 study by the E.P.A., powerful environmental groups still passionately fight the concept in the United States.

“Incinerators are really the devil,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Investing in garbage as a green resource is simply perverse when governments should be mandating recycling, she said. “Once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you then have to feed it. Our priority is pushing for zero waste.”

On the other hand, countries like Denmark and Germany that are expanding waste-to-energy capacity also have the highest recycling rates. Only the material that cannot be recycled is burned.

Nickolas J. Themelis, a professor of engineering at Columbia University and a waste-to-energy proponent, said America’s resistance to constructing the new plants was economically and environmentally “irresponsible.” 

Europe uses household waste for clean energy
Some European countries are generating green and cheap energy through waste-to-energy power plants placed in the communities they serve.