Reduce reuse recycle — words every American is familiar with. For the past several decades, America has been obsessed with recycling. Yet for the most part, recycling goes unquestioned; it’s assumed to be an environmental, social, and economic benefit. But is recycling really that helpful? Does the stuff we throw in the blue bin just end up in the same pile as the stuff in the green bin? We are going to take a look at why we recycle so much today, and the whether or not we actually should.
It all started with the Mobro 4000…
The “recycling boom” started as a result of the Mobro 4000, a barge carrying over 3100 tons of garbage out New York City and down to North Carolina. The Mobro was owned by mobster Salvatore Avellino, who was planning to ship the garbage down to North Carolina, and then eventually Louisiana, for methane production, a newfound technology at the time.
Methane is a poisonous gas naturally produced by bacteria in landfills through anaerobic digestion, but harnessing it for electricity poses huge economic and energetic profits. A single landfill in New York makes the city $12 million per year. And according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the 605 landfill projects across the U.S. produce about 15 billion kWh of electricity every year. For comparison, the average American household uses 11,000 kWh of electricity per year. By these numbers, current landfill projects in America can power over 1.3 million American households per year.
The problem for Avellino was that his partner, Lowell Harrelson, never got a written agreement for the barge to port anywhere, and therefore were not guaranteed to be able to dump their garbage. Avellino’s reputation as an organized crime boss preceded him, and North Carolina’s government did not allow the barge to port because of suspicions of hazardous medical waste being aboard the ship. The Mobro 4000 ended up traveling up and down the east coast, all the way down to Belize, before returning to New York two months later with no one willing to take their waste. People did not realize that there was available space for the garbage, and Americans who watched the Mobro sail up and down the Atlantic thought there was a crisis.
In reality, the shortage of landfills was caused by what this New York Times article from 1987 describes as the “Not in my backyard” syndrome, a phenomenon observed even today. The phenomenon can be described as when people are happy to support beneficial measures, as long as their area is not affected (for example, supporters of nuclear energy most likely would not vote to have a nuclear reactor in their town). People did not want landfills anywhere near them, and that’s why New York voted to close all Long Island landfills by 1990, sparking the Mobro 4000 crisis, and the road to recycling.
The backlash at the recycling movement…
With the ability to view the results of the Mobro 4000 and the new recycling movement, an antagonizing New York Times article from 1996 titled “Recycling is Garbage” points out the futileness of the recycling boom that swept America. Here’s a quote from James DeLong, a Washington scholar, from the article:
“I don’t understand why anyone thinks New York City has a garbage crisis because it can’t handle all its own waste… With that kind of logic, you’d have to conclude that New York City has a food crisis because it can’t grow all the vegetables its people need within the city limits”
According to DeLong, if all the trash produced by New York City came from materials that were shipped into the city, then why should the city be responsible for holding that trash? New York understands this sentiment today, as it ships 23,000 tons of garbage out of the city per day. That’s the equivalent of seven Mobros, or almost 8 million tons of garbage per year.
That sounds like a lot of trash. But we don’t see landfills overtaking cities, and it’s not like we do, or can, recycle all of that garbage. Can landfills actually hold that much garbage? The answer is yes, they can. And according to A. Clark Wiseman, if Americans generate the same out of trash as they do now (it was 1996 when Wiseman said this) for the next thousand years, they could fit all of the trash in a 1225 square mile landfill… small compared to the 150,000 square miles of parkland in the U.S.
A comparison of landfills versus recycling…
According to the EPA, in 2012 the U.S. generated 251 million tons of municipal solid waste (trash). About 54% of this went to landfills, with another 34% recycled.
Just as Salvatore Avellino saw in the 80’s, methane production from landfill gasses is extremely profitable because of its energy yields. As mentioned earlier, landfill projects currently yield 15 billion kWh of electricity according to the EESI, or even 16 billion kWh according to the EPA, enough to power 1.3 million American homes. The basic steps of how landfills produce the necessary gasses for energy creation is as follows:
First, aerobic bacteria, which consume oxygen, begin to break down the organic materials in the landfill, producing carbon dioxide in the process.
After all the oxygen has been consumed, anaerobic bacteria, which do not require oxygen to live, break down the compounds created by the aerobic bacteria into acids and alcohols. This process creates hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
Other anaerobic bacteria will consume the acids created in the second step and produce acetate. The landfill becomes less acidic during this process. This gives way to methane-producing bacteria which consume carbon dioxide and acetate.
In the last phase of the process, the landfill stabilizes. For the next 20 to 30 years, the landfill will produce landfill gas, which is about half methane and half carbon dioxide.
In order to convert the landfill gas into energy, first the landfill needs to capture the gas. They start by closing off part of the landfill to additional waste – these are known as “cells.” They then set up extraction wells, which penetrate through layers of ground, soil, and gravel covering the trash.
The gas then goes through a moisture separator. The gas is very warm when it is extracted from the ground, but cools as it travels through the collection system. This causes condensate to form. If the condensate is not removed, it could disrupt the entire system. Attached are the blowers, which pull the gas from the wells into the rest of the system. The gas will then either continue through the system to be converted to energy, or it will go to a flare. Flares burn any excess landfill gas that is above the capacity of the energy conversion system, or during renovations, as to prevent any methane from being released into the atmosphere. Here’s a look at what the typical system looks like:
About 3/4 of current landfill projects are focused on electricity generation. Most of these use internal combustion engines, which are capable of running on projects designed for anywhere from 800 kW to 3 MW (megawatts). Gas turbines are usually used for large projects handling over 5 MW of electricity. Microturbines are for smaller projects, as each unit is capable of handling about 250 kW at most. The rest of the landfill projects are for direct use, which heat local buildings and facilities, usually within 5 miles of the landfill. The Puente Hills landfill, the largest landfill gas to electricity program in America, is currently producing 50 MW of electricity annually, which could provide power to about 50,000 homes. For a look at current landfill projects and potential future ones, check out this EPA page.
Not only do landfill gas to electricity projects pose energetic benefits, they also pose huge environmental benefits. The carbon dioxide released is not considered to add to climate change, because it was from recently living biomass, and the carbon dioxide would have been released anyway from decomposition. Landfill projects capture from 60% to 90% (for more efficient recently designed projects) of the methane produced by the landfills. With a 90% collection rate, there is barely any gas being released into the atmosphere. In addition, using electricity from landfills displaces the energy that would come from burning fossil fuels, which is arguably the largest contributing factor to climate change. In 2014, landfill gas projects reduced approximately 127 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to carbon dioxide emissions of over 14 billion gallons of gasoline. If landfills are so viable, is recycling just a waste, or is it still better than landfills?
In 2013, America recycled 34%, or 87 million tons, of its waste, over double the 16% recycled in 1990 . Here’s a quick look at what materials we recycle, and how much of each:
Lead-Acid batteries are toxic and highly processed, so it makes sense that we tend to recycle them almost 100% of the time. Newspapers and paper are recycled extremely heavily at the industrial level, which is why the rate is so high. Typical items like bottles and glass are recycled about a third of the time, and aluminum cans come out to be recycled just over half the time. Here’s a look at what kind of waste we are producing:
Total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Generation (by material), 2013 254 Million Tons (before recycling)
And here’s how much we are recycling (data from 2011, check this EPA fact sheet for more current data):
The EPA’s WARM (Waste Reduction Model) was created to help organizations track their energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions, and help compare them to different waste management strategies. You insert the tons of each product that you recycle or toss in a landfill. You are then able to choose what kind of landfill you would be using (I chose one with gas-to-electricity capabilities). It then produces data on the difference in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (basically just the amount of greenhouse gas emissions) and in Btu, which measures the energy cost. I used WARM to compare two different scenarios:
One scenario uses the 2013 EPA data on municipal solid waste. In the other scenario, I reversed the numbers. How many tons of a material that we currently landfill, were entered as being recycled, and vice-versa. Obviously, we recycled a lot more in the second scenario, 64% of the total MSW was recycled and 34% was put in landfills.
According to the data, recycling is leaps and bounds better than landfills. The second scenario (recycling more) resulted in a reduction of 11,717,984 metric tons of carbon dioxide being emitted. 1,137,729,915,000 Btu were saved by recycling as much as we put waste in landfills now. These numbers are the equivalent of fulfilling 10,119,583 households’ annual energy consumption, conserving 195,822,705 barrels of oil, or 9,101,839,318 gallons of gasoline.
While this data shows that recycling is positive and better than landfilling, we still need to support landfill gas to energy projects. A lot of materials and products cannot be recycled, so landfills are going to be an important aspect of America’s waste management for the foreseeable future. Additionally, landfill projects create energy even after landfills are out of commission, which is almost like free energy. They also prevent almost all of the methane being produced from landfills from reaching the atmosphere. So even though the New York Times was wrong in 1996 that recycling is pointless, landfill projects are still increasingly important. That being said, we need to continue striving to recycle as much as possible, and to keep recycling awareness in the public’s mind.