Features
James Allen Walker for WORLD

Garbage collectors

Environment | Where most people simply see trash, some see renewable energy-or even dinner

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Brent Dieleman likes to talk about a facility near Washington, D.C., that burns trash, which heats water for steam to turn turbines to make electricity. There are only 87 such facilities in the United States, and none has been built in the last 15 years. Covanta Energy's trash-to-energy plant in Fairfax, Va., outside Washington processes 3,000 tons of garbage every day, producing enough energy to power 75,000 homes.

The emissions from the process-while cleaner than fossil fuels-look toxic. "They're clean, but nobody wants them in their communities," said Dieleman, 28, who analyzes trash for a living at an environmental consulting firm, SCS Engineers, in Washington. In communities where these biomass plants are proposed, residents object because of quality of life: What will happen to their asthmatic children? they demand. The perception, Dieleman says, comes from plants that did emit harmful chemicals many years ago-practices that have changed under restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Trash-to-energy has an unlikely champion in Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, former head of the Democratic National Committee. He toured Covanta's facility in March and proclaimed his support the whole way through. But he is an exception among politicians. Trash-eating, smoke-belching energy plants aren't a politically popular idea, and they barely garner a mention on Capitol Hill.

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The concept has a more persistent champion in Dieleman. In a recent trip to Texas, he puttered through landfill after landfill, scrutinizing the types of waste and the management of each site. Texas, he says, has a lot of potential for projects to recycle landfill gas, or methane, into energy. Dieleman and his team also have taken on the dumpsters at the University of Maryland, divided each scrap of trash into over 60 categories, and were able to engineer better ways for the university to manage its solid waste.

Washington may be a city where people pride themselves on the nobility of their jobs and the titles that go with them, but Dieleman sees his devotion to solid waste management as noble, too, and a calling from God: "I'm just a garbage man. . . . Everybody plays an important role in bringing about God's kingdom."

Part of promoting God's kingdom, he believes, is eliminating wastefulness. But private and public recycling programs are falling by the wayside as markets slide and the price of recyclable materials per ton plummets. "We live in such a throw-away society," said Dieleman. "The natural world, the way God created it-there is no waste."

At dawn on Saturday mornings in Pella, Iowa, when his classmates were either asleep in their beds or watching cartoons, 9-year-old Brent Dieleman would ask his father to take him out to collect trash. For the next eight years, he and his father scoured the roadsides on Saturdays for recyclable litter, and once he got his driver's license, young Dieleman went on his own. His father was relieved.

Dieleman's garbage sifting disgusts even his colleagues, but the clean-cut engineer continues his childhood hobby by going dumpster diving for recyclables on weekends. The addiction once helped solve a crime: On a Saturday morning rummage through a trash can at a truck stop in Iowa, Dieleman found a half-full Pepsi bottle. He dumped the soda out and discovered a wad of checks stuffed inside, over 60, made out to a Pizza Hut in Wisconsin. The restaurant had been robbed at gunpoint the day before. Because Dieleman was wearing gloves when he picked up the bottle, police were able to dust the bottle for fingerprints and track down the criminals.

"I thought I would get free pizza for a year," he said. "All they sent me was a pencil and a fake sheriff badge."

But paying attention to waste is paying off-not usually in solving crimes, but in finding "renewable energy" in something most people simply want to be rid of: trash.

When politicians talk about "renewable energy," they're usually referring to wind or solar energy, both expensive to generate. With credit markets floundering, policy makers assume that the government will have to provide capital for investing in renewable energy infrastructure--especially if the United States is to meet the goal set by the Obama administration of doubling renewable energy generation in the next two years.

Hudson Clean Energy, an energy equity firm, estimates that the price tag for reaching the goal will be $134 billion, according to The New York Times. Other renewable energy ideas run the gamut, from drilling into the earth's magma to harnessing ocean waves to installing smart energy use meters in every home in America. Most of the ideas require substantial investment in infrastructure.

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