Friday, December 4, 2009

Here come the experts!

I’m in day two of power point presentations, parallel sessions and conference-speak. I have endured disparaging remarks about public opinion and unscientific, sentimental opposition to incinerators. My head is swimming with engineering equations and flow diagrams. But I can’t help feeling that somewhere we lost sight of the forest for the trees.

My suspicion is confirmed as one engineer arrives at the end of his presentation. After a long, technical discourse on the thermal and electrical efficiency of waste incinerators, lower and higher heating values, he arrives at a startling conclusion: we should stop landfilling, mechanical-biological treatment and even composting – and instead send all our municipal waste to incinerators for energy recovery!

This woke me with a start. How in the world had he arrived at this conclusion? (He did have the decency to note that re-use and recycling were still good ideas). As Enzo Favoino rose to protest (to applause), I looked back through his presentation notes. It took me several minutes to unpack the formulae and assumptions. Ultimately, I realized, his presentation was about energy efficiency: how to generate the most usable energy from waste. Yet compost creates no usable energy directly. So he ignored the many non-energy virtues of compost: returning organic matter and micronutrients to the soil; reducing the need for petroleum-based fertilizer; improving soil structure; the fact that composting operations create ten times as many jobs as incinerators…all of it. He was only interested in energy production.

It was a good lesson in perspectives. Each of us sees the world through our particular set of lenses: we see what we are trained and conditioned to see. I always ask, how would this work in Bombay, my former home? But a combustion engineer, who looks at everything produced by humanity and nature as fuel, sees things differently. He asks, how can I make energy from this? Of course, the answer is: burn it in a modern incinerator.

I wondered how many city officials or policy-makers, hearing this presentation, would unpack the assumptions and perspectives that lay behind it. And how many would simply be bowled over by his complicated equations, his evident mastery of thermodynamics, and simply accept his recommendations at face value.

And where does that leave us, the advocates for justice and a healthy environment? Do we have to become engineers to argue with the engineers and their blinders? Or can we pry open the conversation to include a wider perspective of what benefits humanity? And if we do, can we still win the argument?

Spanish Translation:
Aquí vienen los expertos!
By Neil Tangri
Estoy en el segundo día de presentaciones en power point, sesiones paralelas y conferencias. He tenido que soportar comentarios despectivos sobre la opinión pública y científica, la oposición sentimental a los incineradores. Mi cabeza está nadando con las ecuaciones de ingeniería y diagramas de flujo. Pero no puedo evitar la sensación de que en algún lugar hemos perdido de vista el bosque por los árboles.

Mi sospecha se confirma cuando uno de los ingenieros acabó su presentación. Después de un largo discurso técnico sobre eficiencia térmica y eléctrica de los incineradores de residuos, los valores calorífico inferior y superior, llegó a una conclusión sorprendente: debemos dejar de los rellenos sanitarios, el tratamiento mecánico-biológico e incluso el compostaje - y en lugar de esto, ¡enviar todos los residuos municipales a los incineradores para la recuperación de energía!

Esto me levantó con un sobresalto. ¿Cómo pudo haber llegado a esta conclusión? (Él tuvo la decencia de señalar que las ideas de la reutilización y el reciclado todavía eran buenas). Cuando Enzo Favoino se levantó para protestar (los aplausos), miré hacia atrás, hacia de sus notas de presentación. Me tomó varios minutos para descomprimir las fórmulas e hipótesis. En última instancia, me di cuenta, que su presentación fue sobre la eficiencia energética: cómo generar mayor cantidad de energía utilizable a partir de los residuos. Sin embargo, el compostaje no crea energía utilizable directamente. Así que hizo caso omiso de las muchas virtudes no- energéticas del compostaje: la recuperación de materia orgánica y micronutrientes para la tierra; reducir la necesidad de fertilizantes basados en petróleo; la mejora estructural del suelo; el hecho de que las operaciones de compostaje crean diez veces más empleos que las incineradoras ... todo ello. Él sólo estaba interesado en la producción de energía.

Fue una buena lección de perspectivas. Cada uno de nosotros vemos al mundo a través de nuestras perspectivas particulares: vemos lo que estamos entrenados y condicionados a ver. Siempre pregunto, ¿cómo funcionaría esto en Bombay, mi hogar anterior? Pero, un ingeniero de combustión, que mira todo lo que ha producido la humanidad y la naturaleza como combustible, ve las cosas de manera diferente. Él pregunta, ¿cómo puedo hacer energía a partir de esto? Por supuesto, la respuesta es: la combustión en un incinerador moderno.

Me preguntaba cómo los muchos funcionarios de la ciudad o los políticos, al escuchar esta presentación, descifrarán los supuestos y las perspectivas que hay detrás. ¿Y cuántos simplemente se quedarán boquiabierto con sus ecuaciones complicadas, su evidente dominio sobre la termodinámica, y simplemente aceptar sus recomendaciones.

¿Y dónde nos deja esto, los defensores de la justicia y del medio ambiente sano? ¿Tenemos que ser ingenieros para discutir con los ingenieros y sus anteojeras? O se puede abrir con fuerza la conversación para incluir una perspectiva más amplia de lo que beneficia a la humanidad? Y si lo hacemos, ¿podemos todavía ganar la discusión?


  1. Neil,
    You ask if we need to become engineers? Some of our tribe ARE engineers! Creating a clean and just operating system for Spaceship Earth will require the full set of human talents, so it is our job to become more inclusive and inviting for those folks we need, like engineers, economists, bankers, etc... all around the world the green wave is sweepeing even those professions, and we need to make an effort now to bring them into the Zero Waste family on terms that they understand. Good people are everywhere, and even those ISWA engineers can support us in the end.
    I'm curious about how much "air time" the Zero Waste vision has gotten? Was the term even discussed?

  2. It makes even less sense to view waste just in energy terms for countries with economies in transition whose waste streams almost always contains a lot of food waste and are so wet that they won't even burn without support fuel.

    The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) rules allows up to 50% of the energy to come from this support fuel which can be coal, oil or gas.

    The consequence is that CDM supports the burning of coal in incinerators with net thermal efficiencies of as low as 11% and never much higher.

    The carbon dioxide emissions from this coal are not counted against the project. Yet even old coal fired power stations are more than three times more efficient than the new incinerators. If the support coal was burned in a power station instead of an incinerator, and the wet waste waste digested, we would generate much more energy - and as a bonus the residual would be a useful digestate rather than hazardous ashes.

    The take-home message is that many of the incinerators supported by CDM, mainly in China, are effectively large kettles which use fossil fuels to boil the water off very wet wastes. There is no way that this can be justified as "offsetting" by anybody with any knowledge of the science and with an interest in sustainability.


  3. Good points, Eric. Although a few Zero Waste practitioners (notably from New Zealand and Australia) were in the audience, they got no air time. Not only was Zero Waste not mentioned once from the dais, but ISWA has rebranded the 3Rs. No longer do they mean "reduce, reuse, recycle" but now "reuse, recycle, recover (energy)"! So that should give you an idea about the inclinations of this group

  4. HI Neil, its very interesting to note your experience. But it is not just some engineers' view point. They are people from concerned companies or agencies of the governments. For our case in India - Ministry of Renewable Energy or State Green Energy Development Boards are frantically trying to take charge of waste. Oh - what a solution! When the reponsible municipal authorities are shirking their responsibilities, these kind of people (departments) have dropped down to solve our waste problem(!) I think its happening in other countries also. They like to burn aything and everything except fossil. If it is not fossil - it is 'green' and 'renewable' and justifies CDM. Their agenda is not 'waste management' but 'waste burning' for energy. So our fight is not just against some experts, rather a consolidated force.

    But another point is important. Alan points out rightly that even in terms of energy production their schemes are very inefficient. Instead they could burn fossil fuel separately( instead of putting in waste incinerator for burning wet waste) and produce energy from wet waste through digestion. Why they are not doing so? I think it is difficult for them to plan or install huge projects for anaerobic digestion. But when it is an waste incinerator, lot of investment is involved. Further investment for pollution control devices and many more things. Larger the projects, larger the business. And larger miscalculations too to fetch larger benefit of C credit. What do you think ?