When the US ran into its first big-time energy crunch and people in cities all across the nation sat in line for hours each week in the hope of reaching the gas pump before the station owner dragged the dreaded “Out of Gas…Try again tomorrow” sign into the driveway, governments and people responded in a variety of ways, some innovative…others not so.
The Issue Was Energy
Remember the “odd-even” scheme based on the final digit of the license plate number? I wonder how many license plates were stolen during those maddening days, or how many neighborhood entrepreneurs emerged from the woodworks to “rent” the plate? Luckily the odd-even patch was short lived, but society changed course with many motorists deserting their gas-guzzlers for smaller, more efficient vehicles.
As an immediate response to the perceived crisis, a number of waste-to-energy incinerators were built and brought on line. Not surprisingly the concern of these units was more on the energy portion of the equation than the environment, but as the perception cooled it became apparent—as was the case with their fossil fuel cousins—there were serious emissions concerns to be addressed. This defect was deemed acceptable at the time, because the issue was energy rather than waste management…but things changed.
The Issue Became the Environment
In the 1980s, as memories of the “energy crunch” faded, so too did the perceived need for WTE combustors, which now found themselves in the direct path of public’s growing concern for the environment that even before the collapse of the Soviet Union had begun to overtake defense as the nation’s focal point. Faced with exorbitant air-emission-control retrofit costs to comply with increasingly tough pollution regulations, some WTE plants closed. Many of those that continued in operation did so through the largesse of subsidies and the guarantee of sufficient waste to fuel them.
…And the Economy
The decade of the ’90s began on a dismal economic note. It was a time of belt-tightening in which the public sector found its programs and practices being evaluated according to private sector business principles and standards. Not surprisingly high cost, low-return programs—particularly those standing in the path of increasing environmental regulation—found themselves with their backs to the wall. Then, in 1994, came the famous Carbone v. Clarkston decision, which for waste facilities throughout the country—especially the already embattled WTE plants—invalidated the waste flow controls on which many of them depended for their very existence.
Despite skyrocketing demands for energy, siting new production facilities became all but impossible, not just in the face of regulations but environmentally motivated public opposition as well. Even with dire predictions of energy shortages at the beginning of the new century, public resistance to new WTE facilities—or any waste facilities for that matter—continued to grow in its stridency.
That attitude, however, failed to take into account the combined effects an exploding worldwide demand for energy resources, serious disruptions and continuing weakness in Western economies, the recent run-up of fuel costs coupled with the potential for fuel scarcity in response to the ominous rumblings of civil unrest in the Arab world.
While none of us can envision the full extent to which our lives will change as a result of the most recent challenges, suffice it to say that they point up some glaring weaknesses, not only in the reliability of our financial institutions but in the integrity of our vital and largely neglected infrastructures as well. Whereas blame for the energy shortages of 2001 might seem to have rested on relatively short-term problems, it is now apparent that the entire basis of our energy system—fuel, production, and distribution—is flawed and badly in need of overhaul.
The various practices that fall into the category of energy-from-waste face a long uphill battle with the public—and especially environmental groups who have consigned the various alternatives to the bottom of the waste management hierarchy—but it perhaps a new round of debate on the subject can now begin. Rather than wait for others with less knowledge of the opportunities and challenges to grab the spotlight, isn’t it time for waste management professionals to take a leadership role in educating elected officials and shaping public opinion?