In 2008, according to the EPA (pdf), Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and only recycled about 83 million tons, or just over 33 percent.
Compare that to Horsholm, Denmark, where only 4 percent of the town’s waste now goes into landfills, according to the New York Times, and 61 percent is recycled. The other 34 percent is incinerated in clean-burning new waste-to-energy plants that produce heat and electricity and drastically reduce both methane and carbon dioxide emissions.
The EPA has actually certified trash as a potential source of renewable energy, in some cases eligible for subsidies, but the United State still only has about 87 waste-to-energy facilities across the country, compared to more than 400 in Europe.
The problem, according to the Times? Nimbyism (no one in America can stand the idea of a massive trash-burning facility – no matter how clean burning and quiet – across the street) and resistance from environmentalists who fear such efforts will kill the nation’s recycling industry.
To debunk the recycling argument just check out Horsholm’s recycling of nearly twice the American average. As for Nimbyism and the poor public perception, organize tours to the local landfill so people can actually see where their trash goes and how it gets there (large gas-guzzling trucks) and perhaps they’d drop their trash-burning phobia.
The same kind of resistance (from Nimbys and conservationists) is being felt in Colorado communities hoping to use similar gasification technology to turn acres of trees killed by the mountain pine park beetle into both heat and electricity.
Some European countries like Austria get more than 10 percent of their power and heat from gasifying forest products, but Americans have an aversion to tapping the woods to heat homes or run flat-screen TVs – even when the forest is largely dead or dying due to a bug outbreak aided by global climate change.
Perhaps it will take the United States running out of room for more landfills or seeing entire national forests from Oregon to New Mexico red and dead before innovative Euro-style solutions are taken more seriously here.