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Some Free Environmental Benefits
Jack Balshaw 6/25/01

It’s strange how environmental benefits, recycling and cost savings can be pushed aside if convenience has to be sacrificed.  As part of the discussion on our energy crisis, information was published about the amount of electricity the county generates from the landfill.  It’s quite a lot.   

This electricity is generated by burning the methane gas that is a byproduct of the breakdown of organic products in the landfill. But, we’re overlooking a great source of organic debris that would not only generate almost free electricity but lessen the cost of our sewerage disposal.   This source is the tons of garbage we (collectively) flush down our garbage disposals every day. 

Our wastewater treatment plant is there primarily to process our sanitary and other household waste, garbage.   It’s quite common for a typical household to have more garbage than sanitary waste.  To handle this extra load, we’re designing our new wastewater treatment plant to process this household waste that, if sent to the landfill, could generate electricity instead of costing us money to process. 

Imagine what benefits might accrue if we all disposed of household waste in the trash instead of down our garbage disposal.  Other than the incremental cost of trucking slightly more tonnage to the landfill, it’s all beneficial. 

The first benefit of course is the increased electricity that could be generated at no significant cost.  There is much talk about sustainable resources and yet here we are, not only throwing away a product that can be recycled, but paying extra in sewer fees to treat it just for the convenience of being able to throw it away.

The second benefit would be the saving of the tremendous amounts of water we use to flush this garbage through the disposal and into the wastewater system.  There is much talk about the need to conserve water and yet here we are literally contaminating it with garbage so that we then have to spend money to clean it up before putting it in the river.

 The third benefit would be that we could have a much smaller wastewater treatment plant that would cost us less to build and less to operate.  Our monthly bills would less.  That could add up to a significant dollar saving.  And yet, I’m not aware any consideration was given to this option when the new wastewater plant was being discussed. 

Building on the last paragraph, people who don’t have a garbage disposal put less strain on the wastewater treatment system and should somehow be credited with that instead of being charged a flat average rate that everyone must pay.  Perhaps having a garbage disposal is considered as necessary to contemporary life as the TV remote and so no credit is given to anyone who does things the old ways.

 A recent article in this paper, “Getting off the grid”, mentioned the new electric water heaters that could reduce the natural gas consumed by  water heaters.  Who knows, the electricity that could be generated by garbage might be enough to heat the hot water some homes use to wash dishes.

 While this discussion may seem to be a whole lot of talk about nothing important, the environmental benefits of sending our garbage to the landfill would exceed the environmental savings we can expect to get from building expensive bike paths around town.  In addition, we would be saving money on both sewerage treatment and the cost of electricity.

 If using a waste product to produce power directly as well as to reduce the amount of power needed to pump water and treat waste isn’t a “sustainable” process, I don’t know what is.  Perhaps our environmental goals need to be listed, quantified and prioritized.  If we don’t know where we want to go, how will we know when we get there? 

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