Save the planet by burning the trash

By Michael Hall

The best way to save the planet is to burn trash. Not landfilling, not recycling, not packaging fees but using trash to produce energy.

Imagine a pile of sawdust. Grab a handful, toss it into a television-advertised pasta maker and out comes an eco-friendly, carbon-neutral biofuel, “wood pellets.” Bag, palletize and deliver them to homes throughout new England. Oversimplified, but that is how they are made.

Grab another handful of sawdust. Mix it with water, roll onto a window screen and let it dry. Peel it off and presto, you have paper. A landfill-clogging blight on the environment in crucial need of recycling. Both wood pellets and paper of all types, i.e., cardboard, newspaper or copy paper, start out as sawdust. Why do we encourage burning sawdust in one form but discourage it in another?

A pound of wood pellets has 8,200 BTUs on average. A pound of newspaper has 7,900 BTUs. A negligible difference, as they are both sawdust. The Ellsworth City Council would be happy if it were given a free truckload of wood pellets for heat every day. That is the amount of paper trash generated in Hancock County. What a crazy system where people are spending hard-earned money to buy energy and paying to have energy hauled away and disposed of.

Imagine a barrel of oil or a tank of natural gas. We pay for both to be delivered to heat our homes, schools and businesses. That same oil or gas is made into plastic, which we pay to dispose of. But almost all plastic burns with the same BTUs per pound as the original feed stock.

Why are we polluting the land and fouling the oceans to produce wood, oil and gas for energy? Simultaneously, we are polluting the land and fouling the oceans with mountains of combustible trash. No sea turtles would mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish if the plastic bag never reached the ocean. Instead, it should be used to heat homes and be turned back into energy. How much less oil, gas and wood would we need to harvest in the first place if all the trash in the country was harvested for its energy content. Why landfill or dump combustibles as trash. Energy is sourced all over the world and delivered to our homes and towns in the form of wood and paper, oil, gas and plastic. Rather than cursing the trash we should say, “Thank you for sending us free energy” and burn anything combustible

The joker in the deck is chlorine. Chlorine is used to bleach sawdust white to make paper. Chlorine is also used to chemically alter hydrocarbons to produce plastic. When either paper or plastic is burned the chlorine combines with oxygen to produce dioxins. Any widespread use of trash for fuel must include methods to mitigate the production of dioxins.

The trash situation has gotten so silly we are trying to legislate what type of plastic bag is allowed. You can get a flimsy bag at the grocery store to put your tomatoes or asparagus in, but a slightly thicker bag is illegal. Your potatoes come in a bag not much different than the ones now banned and iceberg lettuce comes wrapped in plastic. Go to the local Chinese restaurant and instead of Styrofoam clam shell containers they use pressed paper ones. Then they load up your takeout order in a slightly thicker but legal plastic bag almost identical to the ones now banned. And do not even get me started on creating a whole new bureaucracy dedicated to defining distinct types of packaging and assessing fees on them.

I realized after helping set up the original Ellsworth recycling program under Tim King’s leadership that paper, cardboard and plastic recycling would always be a drain on the taxpayers. Metal recycling was the only portion of the program that was sustainable. Metal recycling also saves 10 times more energy than producing new metal does. The same is not true for the combustibles. The energy needed to recycle paper and plastic products is almost the same as the amount needed to make them new. Burn them.

This may be the only time I advocate for the state of Maine to do more. There are two actions I believe the state of Maine should take. The first is to ban landfills. The second is for the state to provide free curbside trash pickup statewide in built up areas and free pick up from transfer stations in rural areas. All the trash should go to energy plants to be sorted and either recycled in the case of metals or combusted.

To pay for the program is simple. The owners of the waste to energy plants already weigh the trash when they receive it. They can calculate how much energy is produced and offset the state of Maine government’s electrical bill by that amount. Any profits garnered from metal recycling are theirs to keep as well as the ability to sell any electricity exceeding what the state uses. Additionally, the trash trucks can be electric and recharged at the local incinerator.

The state of Maine is now wholly dependent on the tourist and hospitality industries for our livelihoods. Let us take the one step guaranteed to keep Maine beautiful. Let us take the one step guaranteed to protect the environment. Burn the trash.

Michael Hall lives in Trenton and has his degree in economics from the University of Maine. He helped set up the Ellsworth recycling program in the 1990s.

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