NYC Considers ‘Conversion Technology’ to Deal with Massive Waste

New York City Sky

New York City Sky via Flickr cc David Yu, attribution, non-commercial

I was surprised to read this headline in the New York Times today: New York Seeks Waste-to-Energy Proposals.

I calmed a little when I read that the city is looking for the most cutting edge, green methods of turning waste into energy.  They are not going for conventional trash incineration, but looking to things like latest-state anaerobic digestion, gasification, hydrolysis and “other processes” (not sure what that could be) that might be capable of changing garbage into energy cleanly.  Ideally such a facility would be located within 80 miles of the city and initially convert 450 tons of waste per day.

As I wrote in this post from October, New York City has been able to divert only 15% of its garbage away from landfills, in contrast to  San Francisco which diverts 77%, with a goal of zero waste to landfills by 2020.  According to the RFP announcement from Mayor Bloomberg’s office, New York currently processes 10,000 tons of municipal solid waste daily.  The emissions attributable to the transportation of this waste to landfill sites outside the city, together with the methane released from the landfills, amounts to 782,000 metric tons of  greenhouse gas emissions annually.

PlaNYC, New York’s roadmap for increasing sustainability, has a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030. Finding ways to divert trash from landfills is key to achieving that goal.  The city also hopes to increase recycling levels and collect food waste for composting, improving its diversion rate to 30% by 2017.

Some groups have questioned the waste-to-energy approach. Per Eddie Bautista, of NYC’s Environmental Justice Alliance, quoted in the Times:

“New York City’s anemic 15 percent recycling rate means our municipal waste stream is dirtier, which means higher pollution emission levels,” he said. What is more, he added, “local zoning laws tend to cluster polluting infrastructure in low-income communities of color, and we fear that thermal waste-to-energy represents that next wave.”

Indeed, many people concerned about pollution have long had reservations about waste-to-energy solutions, citing safety, health and odor impacts. I agree with critics that using municipal solid waste as a “renewable” fuel is also a disincentive to tackling waste by concentrating on reducing waste overall, ramping up recycling and composting.

Project proposals are due to the city by June 5th, and it will be interesting to see if New York City can find any waste-to-energy process that not only meets stringent environmental standards but can also win acceptance by its denizens.

UPDATE:  According to the NYT, A group called Citizens Budget Commission is calling on the city to move ahead with “conversion technology,” citing the cost-effectiveness of so-called waste-to-energy plants.  In case this sounds like a good way of handling municipal solid waste, I also urge you to read Incinerators Trash Community Health, a report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.  The fact remains that close to 90% of what currently goes to landfills can be diverted and reused.