Throwing Away Energy

Confessions of a trash bin.

When you take out your trash, do you think about where it ends up? Most of the waste produced on the Fort Lewis College campus goes to a landfill 45 miles away in San Juan County, NM. Waste-related fees add up to $30,000-$35,000 annually, one of the many reasons why Fort Lewis aims to become a zero-waste campus in the future.

On a larger scale, the United States leads the world in both annual waste production and energy consumption. Combined, these factors present a serious issue for the U.S. What if there was some way to solve both problems in one stroke? What if the trash you put into the dumpster could turn into energy? In fact, it can and some places have been doing it since the 1980’s.

My hometown of Syracuse, NY, has been using waste resources to create energy for the city since 1995. The Waste-to-Energy facility takes in garbage from the surrounding area and burns it, using the heat to make electricity. The process dramatically reduces waste and simultaneously produces energy, conveniently solving both issues at once! Up to 990 tons of waste are burned each day, which generates around 35 megawatts (35,000,000 watts) of energy for the surrounding homes. This saves 7,330,000 barrels of oil annually- powering 380,000 homes throughout the year. This is just one of the reasons Syracuse is called the Emerald City.

So why doesn’t every city have one of these facilities? There are some questionable aspects, including, isn’t burning trash dirty and smelly? Actually, the Waste-to-Energy facility operates very cleanly. All of the fumes and smoke from the burning process are thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned before their release into the atmosphere. Air pollution from the plants is still a concern, however. The ashes leftover after burning still must be put into a landfill (but at a 90% smaller volume than the trash would have taken up previously). These ashes are sometimes considered hazardous waste. Lastly, the plants can consume not all waste products; most hazardous waste cannot be burned. However, the pollution concerns are very small and are greatly outweighed by the benefits.

Over one hundred similar facilities currently exist in the U.S., handling fourteen percent of the total waste produced. None exist in Colorado and Florida has the most, with 11 facilities spread throughout the state.

What if Durango had one of these plants? The FLC campus could produce some of its own energy and fulfill the goal of becoming a zero-waste campus. Although such a facility is a huge investment, it could one day create huge benefits for the city of Durango. With enough support, a Waste-to-Energy facility and a more sustainable community could be in Durango’s future.

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By Erica Gilrein

FLC Common Reading Experience Exposes Nuclear Waste Issues Close to Home

Rocky Flats nuclear plant

Remnants of the Rocky Flats nuclear plant outside of Denver, CO. Photo used by Fair Use.

Recently, I learned that the 2013-2014 Common Reading Experience book for FLC would be Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden, a nonfictional narrative that focuses on Rocky Flats, a once secret site near Denver that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The author has a history with the plant, as she grew up in the area and her father worked at the plant. Rather than providing a dry, academic or scientific assessment of the issue, she includes both her own personal stories as well as the narratives of other workers and community members, exploring the plant’s impacts both on the environment and on families and individuals.

Rocky Flats is a topic of much interest for me for several reasons. First of all, it “hits close to home” for me, literally. I grew up about two miles southwest of the plant and I’ve always been curious about how well the area was cleaned up after its closure. Though the site was cleaned up and shut down in the early 2000’s, I’ve always wondered how thorough the clean-up process was and whether or not past production has health or environmental impacts today. The topic also relates to my fields of study, as I’m very interested in the intersectionality of social, environmental and political issues. The topic of nuclear weapons and production bring up numerous other issues that tie in to each of these fields: the political implications of nuclear proliferation, the power of the military-industrial complex, the environmental impact of nuclear waste and industrial manufacturing, the social impacts of weapons manufacturing and the health dangers caused by plutonium. Plutonium is a particularly dangerous radioactive material, deadly in even the most miniscule amounts. These are all issues that continue to be of major concern to the world today. Obviously, I’m interested in reading the book myself and I’m glad this book was chosen for FLC’s Common Reading Experience.

Although nuclear weapons manufacturing has been less of a concern in the US since the end of the Cold War, projects carried out in the past continue to impact us today.  The catastrophe at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington is a powerful example.  Known as the most contaminated nuclear waste site in the US, the Hanford nuclear reservation houses 177 tanks full of radioactive sludge left over from plutonium production during the Cold War era. Tanks housing the waste have about a 20-year long lifespan and are quickly beginning to deteriorate. Just a few weeks ago, a single tank containing roughly 447,000 gallons of highly radioactive waste was revealed to be leaking materials. Over time, it was revealed that not just one but six tank were leaking. Cleanup of the site has been delayed over the years due to budgetary issues and the failure of politicians to take action on the issue. While the governor of Washington is pushing the Federal government to take action on the issue, further budget cuts and austerity measures pursued by Congress and the House of Representatives may make cleanup even more difficult and time-consuming.

Nuclear waste has vast long-term consequences for humans, animals and the environment, and is something we all need to learn more about. While our politicians may be more interested in furthering their own agendas, the health of the earth and humanity are in peril. These are issues we should all begin to look into and I strongly feel that it is time to take action on issues of this sort. Whether this means drafting petitions, writing letters to representatives and congress members or simply educating others, it will ultimately be up to the people to make change in these areas. First of all, we must be sure that we are aware of the situations we face and that we educate ourselves. By expanding our understanding and awareness of social, environmental and political issues, we can empower ourselves to become agents of change for the world and in our communities. For more information on this issue check out these excellent sources:

By Randy Newkirk