THE TRASH you put out this morning can be transformed into energy and a variety of other recycled products. But the programs needed to get on with this are going nowhere fast.In 1978, 1 percent of this country's municipal waste was being used to generate energy. That compares with 30 percent in Sweden and the Netherlands, 40 percent in Switzerland and 60 percent in Denmark.
Garbage disposal tends to be the second-largest budget item for city governments (right behind the school system); it is a city's largest headache. Incinerators are expensive and polluting, while land for landfills is growing very scarce and public tolerance of them even scarcer. Environmental regulations -- not for luxury improvements, but for the essentials: usable water and breathable air -- are making open dumps and landfills ever harder to afford. Nevertheless, there are only about 30 trash-to-energy plants in operation in the United States, with a few dozen more being planned. Why?
A few of the problems are technical, though the European experience proves beyond doubt that these can be overcome. However, Americans usually want the best, and the best plants would be ones that not only extract energy but also recover easily recyclable resources: iron, aluminum, glass, rubber and newsprint. Right now, only iron can be recovered reliably -- by using magnets. Systems to separate the others are still mostly primitive and inefficient. Many cities, including Baltimore, tried these newer technologies and were badly disappointed. Other cities have been put off by the example.
The big problems, though, are institutional. In most areas, garbage is collected by the local government. Trash-to-energy plants are sold by private businesses that neither build nor operatore them. The likeliest customer for the energy the plant produces is a utility -- a private business, heavily regulated by a different government agency. Bringing all these different entities together is a herculean task. City sanitation departments, haulers and landfill operators have little experience in running a high-technology plant. Utilities. whose regulations allow them to pass the cost of their fuel straight through to their customers, have little interest in finding new and cheaper fuels. City charters often prohibit long-range contracts for public services, making the necessary long-range planning and financing impossible.
With an invigorated effort, the government estimates that trash-to-energy plants could be processing 25 percent of the nation's garbage by 1990, producing an amount of energy sufficient to supply all of the country's lighting needs, and drastically reducing land requirements for landfills. Yet federal research and development funds for improved plant technologies have been severely cut back, and programs to lower the institutional and financial barriers are fragmented among several agencies, and are a low priority.
Americans are now throwing away three-quarters of a ton of garbage per person per year -- and the amount is constantly increasing. If garbage continues to be just a problem, it can be counted on to get worse. If it is made useful, it can be depended on to get more valuable. The choice seems simple.