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Scientists Harness Energy from Urban Waste

The timing of an international conference on waste management around the world could not have been more propitious. It was held just as the Bloomberg administration announced its 20-year plan to deal with New York City's residential waste by shipping the bulk of it elsewhere by barge and committing the city to recycling more of its garbage. Both the announcement and the conference raised a host of environmental, civic, intra-government and other concerns.

The two-day conference was organized by Columbia 's Earth Engineering Center (the engineering unit of the Earth Institute and a founder of the WTERT Council) and was co-sponsored by the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT), an international group of engineers and scientists from industry, government and academia, discussed the latest innovations and policy developments surrounding waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies. Such technologies are used to manage municipal solid wastes and reduce the use of non-renewable materials and energy. Carmen Cognetta, counsel to the sanitation and solid waste committee of the New York City Council, explained the inner workings of Big Apple politics -- and how they apply to complex waste issues. Audience members came from as far away as Germany , Greece , Brazil and China.

Nickolas Themelis, Stanley-Thompson Professor of Chemical Metallurgy, is director of Columbia 's Earth Engineering Center and chair of the WTERT Council. "The environmentally conscious management of solid wastes is of great importance to New York City," Themelis said. "Currently, the city is obliged to operate dozens of waste transfer stations where putrescible wastes [a type of solid waste] are loaded on diesel trucks and transported at great cost hundreds of miles to out-of-state landfills. The only exception is Manhattan . Much of its waste is converted to electricity and usable metals in a New Jersey waste-to-energy facility across the Hudson."

Nearly 100 WTE plants operate in the United States, according to the WTERT Council, saving about 1.4 billion gallons of fuel oil and recovering close to 1 million tons of metal. These plants combust non-recyclable municipal solid waste at high temperatures and harness that heat to produce energy. Worldwide, more than 600 WTE facilities combust more than 130 million tons of solid waste.

As part of this meeting, the first-ever WTERT awards were made. Martin GmbH, a German company that has developed combustion technology used in more than 300 WTE plants worldwide, received the WTERT 2004 Industry Award. Professor George Tchobanoglous of the University of California at Davis received the WTERT 2004 Education Award for his textbooks on the integrated management of wastes. His books are used by more than 200 universities in the United States and are considered essential reading by engineers around the world.

The WTERT Council, which strives to advance the economic and environmental performance of waste management technologies, was co-founded by Integrated Waste Services Association, an industrial association that represents most of the U.S. waste-to-energy industry in regulatory and economic matters.

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Published: Dec 06, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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