Friday, November 16, 2012

Oslo Runs Out of Garbage

Photo courtesy: Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Nearly 40 years ago, I worked with a very sensible, down-to-earth man who always maintained there was money in garbage. He said it didn`t matter what part of the garbage industry you were in, there was money there if you just cared to look. I have found many, many times over the next four decades that my co-worker was right. Garbage is a vastly under-rated commodity.`s to Oslo and garbage.

Oslo, the capital of Norway, has a strange garbage problem. Too much? No, not enough. At first it might seem like any garbage is too much garbage, but Oslo (like many other cities in Scandinavia and Northern Europe) has built cogeneration plants that produce heat and electricity from garbage -- enough to heat about half of the city. But the locals don't produce enough garbage, partly because of their high recycling rate, so they have to import millions of tonnes of it from places like England and Sweden. They're even considering importing American garbage.

Photo courtesy: Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The regional garbage shortage seems like it's about to get worse too:
Yet the fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year, he said, far too little to supply incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons. “And the Swedes continue to build” more plants, he said, a look of exasperation on his face, “as do Austria and Germany.”

Stockholm, to the east, has become such a competitor that it has even managed to persuade some Norwegian municipalities to deliver their waste there. By ship and by truck, countless tons of garbage make their way from regions that have an excess to others that have the capacity to burn it and produce energy.

“There’s a European waste market — it’s a commodity,” said Hege Rooth Olbergsveen, the senior adviser to Oslo’s waste recovery program. “It’s a growing market.” (Source: The New York Times)
The question is, will this create incentives to produce more garbage, or at least not reduce the amount produced as fast as it would be otherwise? What are the environmental issues with these incinerators? If done well with state-of-the-art equipment, incineration can be better than landfilling because it breaks down many toxins, but there can also be downsides. Norway does a good job of separating what can be recycled and what can be composted from the rest, but if they import garbage from other countries that don't do as good a job, are they burning resources that could be more useful in other ways? Can these cogeneration plants easily switch to more sustainable sources of fuel (waste biomass? but where to find enough?)?

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