The Value in Our Garbage

The food we don't eat gives us gas. But beyond renewable energy generation, organic waste holds the potential of big benefits for our communities.
by | May 28, 2014

Most of the nation's garbage still ends up in landfills, and as much as half of what Americans toss into their trash bins is food waste and other organic material. But increasingly there's recognition of the value in all of that smelly stuff.

Organic waste produces enough biogas that the collection of landfill gas to produce electricity or fuel has become a big business in the United States. And thanks to technological advances, another major use of organic waste, the production of high-quality compost, is increasingly being seen as a key ingredient in long-term community sustainability.

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In the near term, there's little question that capturing landfill gas and putting it to use as renewable energy makes sense. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists an array of benefits, including reducing greenhouse gases, offsetting the use of nonrenewable resources, helping to improve local air quality, providing revenues for landfills, and creating jobs and other local economic activity.

But while landfill biogas is a renewable energy source, there's an ongoing debate about whether it's good long-range policy to continue to send organic material to landfills. Landfills are filling up and biogas, after all, can be produced only if the municipal waste stream continues to provide a flow of material to generate it. The landfill waste-diversion goals that states and local jurisdictions are adopting signal that this flow will diminish over time.

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Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute

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