Burning Trash and Keeping the Car Clean: What Do You Think of Those "Waste-to-Energy" Plants Used by Cities to Generate Power?

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What do you think of those "waste-to-energy" plants used by cities to generate power?--Christine Ramadhin, Queens, NY

Waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities, which generate power by burning trash, have been in widespread operation in the U.S. and Europe since the 1970s and are considered by environmental advocates to be a mixed blessing. They get rid of garbage without adding to already stressed landfills and with the added benefit of contributing electricity to the power grid. But they also generate pollution, usually as a result of burning vinyl and plastics. WtE facilities evolved out of basic incinerator technology that simply burns trash and reduces it to ash and smoke. Waste-to-energy plants instead use the garbage to fire a huge boiler. When the garbage "fuel" is burned, it releases heat that turns water into steam. The high-pressure steam turns the blades of a turbine generator to produce electricity.

In the U.S. and Europe, environmental laws regulate WtE plants, typically requiring them to use various antipollution devices to keep both harmful gases and particulate pollution (fine bits of dust, soot and other solid materials) out of the air. …