Oslo Burns So Much Trash for Energy They’re Importing Rubbish

7,827 6 Loading

SH 116_#2 BIG

The US throws out 250 million tons of garbage a year. Roughly a third is recycled, and the rest is landfill. You might think that’s a problem. But one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Oslo, Norway burns rubbish to power and heat homes, and they’ve run out. The city imports trash from Sweden, Ireland, England—and they wouldn’t mind taking on a few tons from the US.

And it’s not just Oslo. Northern Europe’s trash burning capacity outstrips its trash producing capacity by 550 million tons. Neighboring Sweden imports 800,000 tons of trash annually to make energy. Norway, Austria, and Germany are also getting in on the game. In total, 40 countries worldwide burn trash for energy.

At first blush, burning trash sounds like just about the dirtiest way to produce energy. But Europe, particularly the northern part, is known to be environmentally conscious. So what gives? While modern trash incineration isn’t Mr. Fusion, it’s light years from a smoldering pile of refuse in your neighbor’s backyard.

SH 116_#1Waste-to-energy plants burn trash at temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The inferno turns water to steam and runs turbines to produce electricity. The trash is separated into ash and flue gases. Metals, acids, and other toxic chemicals are removed from the gas through a series of filters, leaving only CO2 and water vapor. The ash—still toxic but volume much reduced—is carted off to line landfills.

American waste-to-energy plants burn 29 million tons of trash for energy each year (11.7% of the total), but there tends to be more pushback in the US than in Europe. This is in part due to incineration’s unclean past. Prior to the 90s, it was a filthy process. Meanwhile, today’s industry markets itself as a renewable source of energy—a line that makes some opponents bristle.

Critics point out the ash is still toxic and the filtered gas still contains the greenhouse gas CO2. The question is whether the amount of CO2 released by waste-to-energy plants has a greater impact than the methane—a gas that traps more heat than CO2—that would have been released in landfill. The industry claims the process compares favorably, while environmentalists question the numbers.

Then there’s the other half of the argument. Labeling waste-to-energy as renewable competes with other favored strategies like wind and solar. And shouldn’t we focus on recycling more stuff, instead of just burning it? It takes less energy to repurpose already constituted industrial materials than building them up new—plus, it saves resources.

Although waste-to-energy may not be a long-term energy solution and shouldn't replace recycling, maybe it makes sense as an alternative to landfill.

As Chief Sustainability Officer at US waste-to-energy provider Covanta told Scientific American, “We have the same waste hierarchy as the EU: reduce, reuse, recycle, energy recovery and disposal. [This] is that step we call the 'fourth R.' After you reduce, reuse and recycle that, you take the step of energy recovery before you put it in the ground."

Image Credit: Christina Rutz/Flickr (banner), LearningLark/Flickr (body)

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 6 Responses

  • asimpleenigma June 10, 2013 on 7:10 pm

    Will adopting this source just prolong our supplies of carbon fuel to pump into the atmosphere?

  • freakqnc June 10, 2013 on 9:56 pm

    Energy recovery? Really? Please lets call a spade a spade. It’s burning trash which has no way to be checked for toxic elements in it. So they incinerate anything you throw at it and pump it in the atmosphere. These kind of incinerators have been found to produce nano particles that are responsible for several types of pathologies including cancers. So going that route while I’d prefer it anytime over nuclear, is by no means sustainable or ecologically sound choice, it’s greenwash at best.

    • Ver Greeneyes freakqnc June 11, 2013 on 1:20 pm

      It depends on the generation of incineration plant we’re talking about. The earliest incineration plants just produced black smoke, and while they saved on landfill space, the soot got everywhere (depending on the wind direction). Second generation plants didn’t produce any visible output, but the invisible gases they produced were actually more harmful than the smoke of the first generation. Third generation plants, however, only output steam. And finally, fourth generation plants (which is where we are now) are efficient enough that they produce more energy than they use. The surplus is somewhere around 15% IIRC.

  • Ver Greeneyes June 11, 2013 on 1:12 pm

    Recycling household rubbish is hard. Seriously. Trying to sort all the different types of garbage requires highly advanced systems, and even they can only get about 50% return at best – much worse than the ~97% of raw materials that incineration can get through various filters. The main problem is organics – lots of rubbish gets organic material on it either at home, or after being combined with other rubbish. And once it’s ‘contaminated’ like that, there’s no hope of sorting it. You might be able to use some of the lower quality plastics to make crude packaging, but that’s about it.

    Now, I’m sure incineration plant people paint a prettier picture than the actual reality, don’t get me wrong. It’s important to analyze the waste they do produce, both the steam that comes out of their pipes and the leftover material that comes out at the other end. But they’re still much more efficient than recycling -without- incineration, and we have to get rid of our rubbish somehow.

    Incidentally, recycling is already applied on a large scale with industrial waste. Here in the Netherlands, for instance, industries recycle something like 90% of their waste. It makes sense – they know what waste they produce, and they can reuse it to build more products. It’s mostly household rubbish that’s hard to recycle, and that’s actually a relatively small fraction of the total waste produced by a country. It’s still a lot in absolute terms though.