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Dooley: Capitol’s Waste-to-Energy Program Is a Good Model

One of America’s most underutilized energy sources finally seems to be getting the attention it deserves — at least on Capitol Hill.

For too long, most of America’s garbage has been buried in landfills that essentially entomb valuable resources such as wood, textiles, plastics and paper. That’s predominately what we’ve been doing with our trash on the Hill as well. But a recent decision by Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, in consultation with the House Administration Committee, has ended this waste of resources.

Beginning this month, as much as 90 percent of the Capitol campus’s nonrecycled solid waste is being sent to a waste-to-energy facility to generate steam and electricity. More than 5,300 tons of waste was collected from Congressional facilities in fiscal 2010 — instead of continuing to bury this source of energy, it is being used to generate enough electricity to power a House office building for several months. This process is diverting the majority of Congress’ solid waste and will save taxpayers money year after year.

It’s about time. Waste-to-energy is widely utilized throughout the developed world as a renewable, low-emission source of power that provides good-paying, domestic energy jobs (you can’t off-shore garbage collection). It represents an efficient, cost-effective means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and turn our waste into a valuable resource.

Yet waste-to-energy facilities are woefully underutilized here. America has fewer than 90 such facilities that handle only about 10 percent of our trash.

Why is America so far behind other countries in utilizing this domestic energy resource? For years, policies have followed assumptions that sending garbage to waste-to-energy facilities would discourage recycling, harm the environment and contribute little if anything to our energy needs. But real world experience has refuted these assumptions.

Based on recent studies in large and small communities across this country, it has become clear that waste-to-energy facilities actually can complement recycling programs. In fact, communities that employ waste-to-energy technologies often have significantly higher recycling rates than others. While recycling is preferable, when it isn’t feasible, we can readily capture the energy from our waste rather than burying it.

As for environmental effects, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends waste-to-energy over landfilling. The agency has found that waste-to-energy produces electricity “with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” (Yes, you read that right.) An EPA-sponsored analysis also determined that burning a ton of garbage at a waste-to-energy facility reduces one ton of carbon dioxide emissions from current power generation. Better yet, the facility that likely will receive the waste from Capitol Hill recently won Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Environmental Excellence Award.

And just how much energy is tied up in our garbage? Scientists at Columbia University recently determined that diverting all municipal solid waste to waste-to-energy facilities would produce enough electricity to power more than 16 million households every year.

That’s right, 16 million — or more than 15 percent of American households, powered solely from garbage. Today’s 86 waste-to-energy facilities produce only enough electricity to power 2 million households. (The scientists found that simply converting all nonrecycled plastics to energy could power 5.2 million households.)

There is widespread bipartisan support for reducing America’s dependence on foreign sources of energy. And there is bipartisan support for the Architect of the Capitol’s move to waste-to-energy.

As a nation, we need to do everything feasible to regain control of our energy future, to grow jobs and to reduce our debt. Moving determinedly toward waste-to-energy can help.

It’s good for taxpayers, it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for America.

Former Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) is president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council.

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