Oslo’s Burning Issue: It Needs U.S. Garbage to Power Itself

The energy-from-waste system that powers Norway’s capital city needs an infusion of American trash, it turns out.

Hard to believe that garbage powers the beautiful city of Oslo, isn't it? But that's precisely the case, thanks to the energy-from-waste (EFW) industry. (Photo: lifeisgood.com)

May 1, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

The city that burns garbage to power itself is in need of a major league shipment of trash. So, naturally, enter the United States.

Oslo, Norway, which fuels half its buildings and homes and all of its schools on electricity generated by the incineration of waste, finds itself at a dirty crossroads.

The city’s 650,000 citizens don’t produce enough trash to sustain the garbage-for-energy model. So, over the past few years, Oslo has been importing waste from neighbors—namely Sweden, England, and Ireland—to make up the difference.

Thing is, though, even this is proving not to be enough.

“The fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year,” according to The New York Times. This is “far too little to supply incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons.”

At least one city official wants to phone a transatlantic friend to remedy the quandary. “I’d like to take some from the United States,” said Pal Mikkelsen, the director of Oslo’s waste-to-energy agency. “Sea transport is cheap.”

For the three readers out there well-versed in the fine print of Norway’s natural resources, you must be wondering: Isn’t the Scandinavian country one of the world’s biggest exporters of oil, gas, and coal? Can’t they simply power their fire houses, brew houses, and coffee houses on their own natural resources?

Well, yes, they can. But they don’t want to. Norwegians are fiercely proud of their pro-recycling, eco-friendly culture. As they should be. According to the EPA, for every ton of garbage processed at an energy-from-waste (EFW) facility, roughly a ton of emitted carbon-dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere is prevented. What happens is that the trash burned at an EFW facility doesn’t generate methane, as it would at a landfill.

The answer to the other question on the tip of your tongue—Why doesn’t the U.S. burn garbage for energy?—is a bit murkier.

First, the facts: The United States is home to only 87 trash-burning power plants in the United States. “Distant landfills remain the end point for most of the nation’s trash. New York City alone sends 10,500 tons of residential waste each day to landfills in places like Ohio and South Carolina,” according to the Times.

Seems like a great idea? Try telling that to an environmentalist with a U.S. passport.

“Incinerators are really the devil,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you then have to feed it. Our priority is pushing for zero waste.”