Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago.
In that time, such plants have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark, from wealthy exurbs like Horsholm to Copenhagen’s downtown area. Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.
With all these innovations, Denmark now regards garbage as a clean alternative fuel rather than a smelly, unsightly problem. And the incinerators, known as waste-to-energy plants, have acquired considerable cachet as communities like Horsholm vie to have them built.
Denmark now has 29 such plants, serving 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people, and 10 more are planned or under construction. Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the pack in expanding them and building new ones.
By contrast, no new waste-to-energy plants are being planned or built in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says — even though the federal government and 24 states now classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies. There are only 87 trash-burning power plants in the United States, a country of more than 300 million people, and almost all were built at least 15 years ago.
Instead, distant landfills remain the end point for most of the nation’s trash. New York City alone sends 10,500 tons of residential waste each day to landfills in places like Ohio and South Carolina.
“Europe has gotten out ahead with this newest technology,” said Ian A. Bowles, a former Clinton administration official who is now the Massachusetts state secretary of energy.