Turning Trash Into Low Carbon Treasure

A guest blog post by David Babson, Union of Concerned Scientists

The United States generates more than 250 million tons of trash and more than 9 trillion gallons of wastewater each year, and these wastes are not well managed. Nearly two thirds of our solid waste ends up in landfills where it decomposes to generate greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere. In all, the waste management sector is the third largest source of climate emissions after the energy and agricultural sectors. Recently, the EPA proposed to place limits on landfill methane emissions. This is a step in the right direction, but there are better ways to handle waste and reduce climate emission from the waste management sector. What would happen if we regarded the waste we generate as a valuable energy resource, rather than just trash and sewage to be disposed of?

To help make the case that our wastes should be considered valuable resources, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a fact sheet, “Turning Trash Into Low-Carbon Treasure” to quantify the magnitude of our country’s unused biofuel potential from wastes. This work highlights the substantial climate emissions reductions that could be realized by improving our waste management system in ways that minimize pollution and maximize renewable biofuel production.

Our research found that each year, the U.S. could generate enough waste-derived power for more than 14 million electric vehicles, which would displace the amount of gasoline consumed by more than 35 million cars. Or, enough renewable CNG for more than 250,000 tractor trailers. Additionally, our fact sheet discusses what must be done to improve our waste management systems, and we give examples of states and localities that are implementing better polices to maximize their waste resource potential.

In Oregon, another study conducted by the Energy Trust of Oregon and the Climate Trust found that the state holds great potential for a thriving biogas industry. Biogas, which can be processed into a renewable substitute for natural gas, is produced as organic wastes decompose under anaerobic conditions. When you combine all of Oregon’s potential organic waste sources to generate biogas – Oregon’s dairies, wastewater treatment plants, municipal solid waste collectors and food processors – Oregon has the ability to generate over 100 megawatts of biogas energy. Yet it currently has fewer than 9 eight megawatts installed.

Implementing better waste management practices and developing appropriate infrastructure to do so can create both jobs and renewable energy while recycling nutrients and eliminating methane emissions, a greenhouse gas whose impact, pound for pound, is between 25 and 34 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

The Climate Trust/Energy Trust of Oregon study showed that realizing Oregon’s vast biogas potential could create at least 300 new jobs, and reduce Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions by 800,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent – that’s almost five percent of the reductions needed to meet Oregon’s 2020 climate goals.

These findings, combined with those in our new UCS fact sheet, illustrate the vast potential for Oregon and the U.S. to emerge as a leader in the global clean renewable fuels industry. This compelling data should be used to support policies that promote clean, renewable fuels. After all, Oregon has a strong history of innovation, from implementing the first statewide bottle bill, to creating the world’s best athletic shoes. If Oregon harnesses its innovative spirit to tackle the complex issues it faces today – like the need to increase the production of waste-derived fuels while decreasing its demand for fossil fuels — Oregon could emerge as a strong leader in renewables. This would mean not only good news for Oregon, but it would create a model that other states would be compelled to follow.

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