Denmark Shows How to Create Value From Waste

An interesting article in the NY Times analyzes how polarized opinion is on either side of the Atlantic regarding disposal of household waste and the consequences that has for the environment.

The article starts by describing the advanced technology used in Denmark to incinerate non-recyclable household waste and the acceptance of residential districts to have the plants sited adjacent to their homes. The plants provide both heat and electricity to the local community meeting some 80% of heating needs and 20% of electricity needs with the benefits being directly fed to the community in the form of low cost heat and power. Denmark now has 29 such plants, serving 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people, and 10 more are planned or under construction. Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the way in expanding them and building new ones. By contrast, no new waste-to-energy plants are being planned or built in the United States, the EPA says ” even though the federal government and 24 states now classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies.

Quoted in the article, the EPA believes the reasons that waste-to-energy plants have not caught on was the abundance of cheap landfills. Opposition from those who felt plants would undercut efforts to promote recycling and a negative public perception often inflamed by those campaigning in the second group. Environmental groups in New York for example have campaigned passionately against adopting the technology on the basis it would undermine their efforts to achieve zero waste. Meanwhile the city paid $307 million last year to export more than four million tons mostly to landfills in distant states. Much goes by road but some is even transported by rail as far away as Virginia.

Back to Denmark and the local town of Horsholm which is the subject of the article. Horsholm sends only 4% of its waste to landfills, 1% (chemicals, paints and some electronics) goes to special disposal like vaults in an abandoned salt mine in Germany, while 61% of waste is recycled and 34% is incinerated in waste to energy plants. The technology makes use of newly developed scrubbing and filtering technologies that capture chemicals like hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, dioxins and heavy metals as well as particulates. Emissions from the plants in all categories have been reduced to just 10 to 20% of levels allowed under the EU’s strict environmental standards for air and water discharges. At the end of the incineration process, the extracted acids, heavy metals and gypsum are sold for use in manufacturing or construction. Small amounts of highly concentrated toxic substances, forming a paste, are shipped to one of two warehouses for highly hazardous materials, in the Norwegian fjords and the previously mentioned salt mine in Germany.

Partly the polarization of views is based on land mass. Europe is densely populated and landfill is considered much more of an environmental hazard and unpleasant neighbor than a high technology incinerator, especially if it pays your heating bills. The US by contrast has wide open spaces and providing the populations of states neighboring major metropolis are willing to continue to take their trash the practice will continue but even so many in the US are beginning to despair. Nickolas J. Themelis, a professor of engineering at Columbia University and a waste-to-energy proponent, is quoted as saying America’s resistance to constructing the new plants was economically and environmentally “irresponsible.

“It’s so irrational; I’ve almost given up with New York, he said. “It’s like you’re in a village of Hottentots who look up and see an airplane ” when everybody else is using airplanes ” and they say, ËœNo, we won’t do it, it’s too scary.’

–Stuart Burns

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  • There is another way to look at the whole burn it/bury it debate, but its a bit long term. About 2 years ago the first ever landfill mining conference was held in London to discuss buried waste as a resource.
    The premise it this. Once the organics have decomposed and all the methane that can be caught economically has been caught, the underground environment can be engineered to leach any other useful chemicals and metals out of the waste. Whether that becomes a competitive option, compared with conventional mining and recycling, will depend on the recovered materials price. Crucially though, and this is something that we already do in Europe, landfills must be designed to keep all the goodies inside the fence.

  • What a fascinating idea Ian, as you say how economic it would be at current metal prices is doubtful but if it can be locked away for future generations then it is not lost for ever. Who knows what future technologies will make economically viable.


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