Hurricane Irma left a mess of destruction in its wake. But in Florida, some of that trash will be put to good use – as electricity. Garbage will be burned in waste-to-energy plants that can produce enough power for around 30,000 homes.
While Houston can send trash generated as a result of hurricane Harvey to 14 active landfills, Florida doesn’t have as much space for landfills. So they burn a lot of it, using the generated heat to run steam generators. In 2016, 10 waste-to-energy plants in the state burned 4.5 million tons of garbage, producing 3.5 million megawatt-hours of power. That was around two percent of Florida’s overall power. Incineration cuts the solid mass of garbage by as much as 90 percent, and then the ash can be put into landfills, taking up less space.
Irma created more trash for burning. Before the hurricane struck, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection set up disaster-debris sites with local governments so trash could be collected for the waste-to-energy plants. According to Bloomberg, county authorities are already seeing spikes in the amount of solid waste.
Hillsborough County solid waste director Kimberly Byer told Bloomberg, “We’ve seen about a 20 percent increase. That’s just an initial increase, and it’s only been a couple of days.”
Florida burned 12 percent of its garbage in 2016. They dumped 44 percent into landfills and recycled 44 percent. Their waste-fueled power plants were constructed largely in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Bloomberg, pollution-control technologies were later retrofitted to get rid of mercury and dioxin – although The New York Times said some environmental activists say waste-to-energy plants, while cleaner than ones of the past, still do emit mercury, dioxins, or lead. Burning trash isn’t the cleanest method of generating power, especially since it generates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that then enters the atmosphere. But according to Bloomberg, it may be better than dumping waste in landfills – eventual methane emissions from the same volume of trash would be worse for the atmosphere.
Hillsborough County turns 565,000 tons of garbage into around 45 megawatts of power per year. Byer said their waste-to-energy plant pays for itself.