When A Green Idea Goes Brown? Garbage as Energy and the Pitfalls Within

Every so often an idea comes along that makes those who consider it excited with the simplicity of opportunity, a proverbial 'D'oh!' moment that makes us all slap our foreheads because we did not think of it first. The purpose of sustainability - to lead a life that provides enough resource opportunities for the present without harming the resource prospects of the future - can be intertwined with the goal of reducing waste or garbage.

Northern Europe, a portion of the globe renowned for their combined recycling sensibilities and initiatives, is no stranger to the concept of reducing, reusing, and recycling. Going one step beyond the conventions of the 3-'R's' has taken a new turn. The city of Oslo in Norway has run into a unique problem; after decades of burning excess trash as a source of energy, trash has become a hot and in-demand commodity, with Oslo and Northern Europe looking overseas for additional trash providers to fuel their cities.

Burning garbage - typically common trash, industrial, and biohazardous waste - has been a popular and highly-lauded source of energy, especially in Oslo, where nearly half of the city is heated by burning garbage. The growing market of trash-burned energy has spread from Norway and Sweden to some of their southern European counterparts, such as Austria and Germany. This simple concept of waste utilization is highly approved in the communities that are powered by such trash-burning initiatives, and it is even considered a form of utility maximization as the burned trash alleviates the resource stress of resorting to fossil fuels for energy purposes. In Norway, where garbage is sorted according to very strict standards, trash burning is seen as part of the modern global game of renewable energy and the shift away from fossil fuel dependence.

From a sustainability standpoint, however, a conundrum of sorts is created by this simple new approach to energy production; the shortage of garbage as 'fuel' is leading countries like Norway to reach out to other garbage producing nations for their own supply, as well as encouraging citizens to create more garbage and waste for the sake of energy. Burning trash adds to air pollution as well, creating one pitfall for the sake of the simple benefit of energy.

As stewards of sustainability and innovative eco-practices reading this article should be a priority. Is it a good idea? Is it worth hoarding another nation's trash for the benefit of the receiving nation's energy? If producing less waste is the keystone to sustainable living, generating renewable energy from trash should be deemed much less of a priority. As Lars Haltbrekken, chairman of Norway's longest and most lasting environmental organization says, "The problem is that our lowest priority conflicts with our highest one."