Many places are reaching a not-at-all-unexpected tipping point in their quest to rid themselves of the garbage they produce: Discovering that their trash is not as easily disposed of as they’d hoped.

landfillMy state of Maryland is just one of such places, where many counties put their trash through old-fashioned incinerators, while others ship it away, to generally be burned in someone else’s incinerator, or thrown into a landfill, or—maybe—actually recycled (which apparently happens a lot less than we’d like to think).

Unfortunately, the landfills are… well… filling up rapidly, or already full.  And despite the popularity and ubiquity of incinerators, operators are finally coming to grips with the incredible amount of toxic pollution emanating from them, forcing many operators to curtail or close operations.  Many landfills and incinerators are now responding to the excess load by refusing to accept trash from other regions that used to depend on them as a way to get rid of their trash.

So, when you can’t throw your trash into a field, you can’t burn it, and you can’t pay others to haul it away… what do you do?

There is one other way to deal with trash, though it doesn’t seem like a different way at all.  Because it’s burning it.  But with a twist: Essentially, burning it really hot.  As in, not at a few hundred degrees as in a traditional incinerator… but at a few thousand degrees, using modern methods.

Plasma has only fairly recently been recognized as an elemental state in its own right (alongside solid, liquid, fire and gas), but we’re already learning to take advantage of some of its attributes.  One of those advantages is that the high heat of plasma will more thoroughly burn waste, leaving fewer trace elements or pollutants behind.  This makes for a much cleaner waste stream.  And virtually nothing exposed to plasma won’t burn, especially the things we traditionally throw away.

plasma-arc gasificationPlasma-arc technology has been developed to incinerate organic and inorganic wastes in high-temperature streams.  The organic wastes, once burned, produce a synthetic gas that can be cleanly burned to run turbines for power.  And the inorganic wastes burn down to an aggregate (glassy bits of rock) useful for construction and roadbuilding.

Plasma-arc facilities are now running in the U.S., Europe and Asia, either as proof-of-concept plants or full profit-based operations.  The U.S. military is also beginning to use plasma-arc technology to dispose of waste in war zones and on naval vessels.  To date, they are proving their efficiency and clean operation, and refining their systems; other jurisdictions are beginning to take notice, and some are planning facilities of their own.

Although a zero-waste stream would obviously be preferable, it is hardly practical at this time, especially in crowded metropolitan areas.  In that case, every jurisdiction that produces trash (in other words, pretty much everywhere) should be looking at the establishment of local plasma plants, to dispose of their own trash and generate power from its disposal.  States like Maryland could build their own plasma-arc plants, using their own trash as fuel, and add to the energy available on the local power grid, solving at once the need to dispose of trash and the need to provide more power to a growing population.  (And fresh aggregate to patch up our roads wouldn’t hurt, either.)

Plasma-arc systems may develop to be scalable, so perhaps in time, it may be possible to create smaller plasma-arc trash-to-power plants to consume trash and generate closer-to-home local power.  Could they become home-based?  Far too early to say (at single-home points, solar and wind power, and even geothermal, would be safer and therefore preferable), but they could at least operate at neighborhood or small town scales.

We’ve reached one of those moments in history when the needs of today demand we replace the technology of the past with that of the future.  Plasma-arc waste burning is a process we can start to apply to our out-of-control trash problems now.