One of the new initiatives included in the recently updated version of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s environmental agenda — a plan to solicit proposals to try out new technologies that convert garbage into heat and electricity –- is drawing mixed reviews from environmental groups.
Waste-to-energy technologies are widely used in Europe, but have not caught on in a big way in this country, where most trash still goes to landfills. The Bloomberg administration wants to experiment with two specific technologies — anaerobic digestion and thermal processing – to convert solid waste into either electricity or fuel to reduce the use of landfills and the costs associated with transporting waste to them by truck and rail.
Anaerobic digestion uses microorganisms to break down waste and produce a biogas that can be combusted to generate electricity. Thermal processing uses heat to produce a synthetic gas and produce electricity.
Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, called waste-to-energy plants a plus that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the current disposal system. “And you have this twofer,” she added. “You’re creating energy and disposing of waste.”
But groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council say that waste-to-electricity systems are not the best use of resources in New York City, given that it has a recycling rate of less than 20 percent. In Europe, they note, countries like Denmark and Germany that use the technology burn only the trash that cannot be recycled.
“Right now the focus of the Sanitation Department should be on resurrecting the city’s recycling program, finding better ways to handle food and yard waste and making the trash collection system more cost-effective and efficient,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the council. “They have their hands full.”
PlaNYC, as the city’s environmental plan is known, states that the technologies will be part of a strategy that also envisions “robust” recycling programs. But one program the city has been hoping to expand, the recycling of plastics, may have to wait. Citing limited markets for certain types of plastic, the plan says the city will revisit the expansion of plastics designated for recycling “as markets evolve.”