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Alternative Energy from Waste - Denmark Produces a Clean Energy Source while Eliminating Landfill Waste to 3%

As a kid we had a trash incinerator in our backyard and although it was no longer permissible by the town we lived in to use the incinerator to burn household garbage, probably because individual homes burning trash in a burner without air filters created significant health concerns as it relates to particulates in the air and air pollution, I still found the trash burner in our backyard fascinating. Like an impenetrable fortress, the three foot cement tower was the focal setting for many Barbie® and Star Wars® mis-adventures and rescues.
Thus began my lifelong fascination with trash. Seems strange to be sure, but solving the problems behind how to reduce garbage (through recycling, repurposing, reduced packaging, using biodegradable materials, and buying in bulk) has, to me, always seemed like one of the most critical and fundamental elements of a sustainability plan and lifestyle.

Perhaps that is why the visit to the Amagerforbrænding waste incineration and power plant was so interesting. While the name Amagerforbraending is a mouthful for non-Danish speaking people, the name is a composite of the word forbraending, which means combustion, and the name of the island that houses the plant, called Amager.

The current waste incineration plant on Amager has been in production since 1971. It was first constructed to provide heat to five local communities (Amagerforbraending representative, personal communication).  By 1991, the plant also produced electricity, a true pioneering effort of the Danish people, who seem to have never in their history been daunted by the unknown. Providing heat by burning is not technologically sophisticated; however, many engineers have struggled with the problems of using combustion to transform trash into electricity. This still remains a problem for many other countries and Denmark is still among the few countries that commonly uses this technology.

Whenever I tell people that in Denmark, only 3% of the garbage and waste ends up being stored in some sort of landfill (Amagerforbraending, personal communication, 19 June 2012) and that waste incineration plants are used, my skeptical audience instantly leaps to the critical question "How is the air quality in Denmark?"

This audience seems to be uninformed of the efficiency of Danish design and the ability of Danish people to think in long-term timeframes, as indicated by the State of Green, the Danish Government's Sustainability Branch. Denmark began establishing regulations on air quality as it relates to incineration of waste at least as early as 1986 (Kleis, et al. 2007, p. 29), and by 1991, had implemented EU guidelines. Also, the German Ministry for the Environment has reported that waste incineration plants emit less pollutants into the atmosphere than coal-fired plants.  Amagerforbrænding confirms that their activities produce air pollution below the permissible levels.  Further technological advancements to solve the capture of air particulates are being addressed by Danish scientists, including those at DTU, the Technical University of Denmark, have published a  paper describing a treatment for air pollution control (APC) particulates that uses chemical solutions to bind heavy metals and reduce air-borne particulates. Much of the ash produced in an incineration plant can be combined with building materials, such as concrete.

Below is a video of moving garbage at Amagerforbrænding waste incineration and power plant in Denmark.

With the volume of waste produced by humans, finding ways to convert trash into clean energy sources is critical.

Restrictions Drive Innovation

Denmark is a fairly small country made up of islands so they do not have the space for large landfills. As a result, they need to come up with more creative solutions and technologies to address the problems of waste disposal.

In the United States, in contrast, we have ample space and therefore our motivations to manage waste in a sustainable way are perhaps less. Actually, the term sustainability pertains, in part, to capacity and longevity within the confines of that capacity. In that regard, the U.S. might lay claim to sustainable waste management. However, another critical component of sustainability is to strive "do no harm" or most certainly, minimize harm and negative impact as much as possible. In consideration of looking at the overall impacts of a waste incineration plant, it is vital that the U.S. shore up its environmental political will and enforcement of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA- type regulations (for example, removing the "grandfather" clause which essentially negates many EPA regulations). Without which the U.S. may solve "landfill" problems and create significant water and air pollution problems.

Fortunately, as the Danish have been developing cleaner waste incineration and heat/electricity plants for a long time, their facilities and policies can serve as a model for the U.S. and other countries. Amagerforbrænding in fact, hosts visitors and shares their technological expertise (Amagerforbraending, personal communication, 19 June 2012) so other countries can visit the facilities in Denmark to leverage their own efforts off of existing technologies.

References cited and consulted in this article

1. General Info regarding the island of Amager in Denmark  

2. Personal Communication dated 19 June 2012 with N. Glarborg at Amagerforbrænding in København S, Denmark

3. Waste incineration plants vs. coal plant air emissions;

5. Kleis, H., Vølund, B., Vølund, W., and Søren Dalager, R. (2007). 100 Years of Waste Incineration in Denmark: From
Refuse Destruction Plants to High-technology Energy Works.
Published by State of Green Consortium.

Below is a video of moving garbage at Amagerforbrænding waste incineration and power plant in Denmark.

With the volume of waste produced by humans, finding ways to convert trash into clean energy sources is critical.
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