Garbage to Grid: The Power of Methane

In 2011, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash (epa.gov); landfills, composting and incineration produced about 122 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (wasterecyclingnews.com).  There is already an existing technology, anaerobic digesters, that can take gases emitted from landfills and turn them into an energy source. Currently, other countries such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland are utilizing a technology that can turn greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced by landfills into an energy source.

Through anaerobic digestion, a biological process, gas principally composed of methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are produced from organic wastes such as livestock manure, and food processing waste (consumerenergycenter.org). Anaerobic digestion is a carbon-neutral technology that produces biogases that can be used for heating, generating electricity, mechanical energy, or for supplementing the natural gas supply. In 2010, 162 anaerobic digesters generated 453 million kWh of energy in the United States in agricultural operations, enough to power 25,000 average-sized homes (c2es.org).

As our atmosphere becomes increasingly burdened by fossil fuel emissions, human health and adequate air quality are becoming more threatened than ever before. Globally, we need to pursue every feasible avenue available in order to reduce anthropogenic sources of GHGs. As it is, we may already be at the point of no return due to how long certain gases remain in the atmosphere (such as CO2, which can remain in the atmosphere for more than 100 years after being emitted). Not only do these GHGs cause numerous negative health effects from asthma to lung cancer, but they contribute to the heating of the earth. To put it simply, GHGs act like a blanket. The more GHGs that are added to the atmosphere, the thicker the blanket gets, the warmer our planet gets.

If the anaerobic digesting technology was implemented at all landfills nationwide, we would not only reduce GHG emissions, but also take advantage of a more sustainable energy source. While it would initially present a considerable cost to build digesters at landfills nationally, they would eventually pay for themselves ten-fold by further distancing our societal structure from ecologically and financially expensive fossil fuels.

Sources: http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/index.htm

http://www.wasterecyclingnews.com/article/20130419/NEWS01/130419909/greenhouse-gas-emissions-related-to-waste-fall-in-latest-statistics

http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/renewables/biomass/digester_landfill.html

http://www.c2es.org/technology/factsheet/anaerobic-digesters

Photos: http://anthonysarnoski.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html

http://www.ionacapital.co.uk/page/95/Anaerobic-Digestion-Adoption.htm