A European energy-from-waste plant (Photo: Getty)
Oslo, Norway has an interesting habit: the city burns garbage to create heat and electricity.
In fact, about half of Oslo's buildings (and most of its schools) are heated with electricity generated by facilities that burn garbage, according to the New York Times.
But the city also has a problem: it's become so efficient at turning trash into energy that it's run out of garbage. So, it's actually started importing some from other places, including the UK.
Not just any garbage will do, though. Naples, in southern Italy, has been paying other countries to take its trash, but authorities in Oslo decided that the garbage from Naples wasn't as "clean and safe" as the UK stuff, and refused to import it.
As for the habit of burning trash to create energy, Oslo's not alone. A lot of other Northern European countries are burning garbage, including household, industrial, and even toxic waste from hospitals and drug busts, to produce electricity.
And in many places, the trash is running out.
At this point, incinerating plants in Northern Europe can handle about 700 million tonnes of waste a year, but the population only produces a total of about 150 million tonnes.
The process works like this: waste is burned in a combustion chamber. The heat from the fire boils water, and the steam drives a turbine, which generates electricity.
All gases that are produced in the burning process are collected and filtered before being released into the atmosphere. Thanks to stringent regulations put in place in recent years, most plants are "no longer significant in terms of emissions of dioxins, dust, and heavy metals," according to the German Environmental Ministry.
Some observers are concerned about the proliferation of energy-from-waste plants. According to Lars Haltbrekken, the chair of Norway's oldest environmental group, there's an unintended consequence to all this efficient burning of waste:
"From an environmental point of view, it's a huge problem," he told the Times. "There is pressure to produce more and more waste, as long as there is this overcapacity."
He says importing waste from other cities is "not a long-term strategy."
But Oslo's city planners say it's a necessity for now. "Recycling and energy recovery have to go hand in hand," according to Rooth Olbergsveen of Oslo's waste recovery agency.
She also points to other positive developments in Oslo: thanks to the separation of organic garbage, the city is now able to use food waste to produce a biogas that powers some buses.
A biogas sign in Oslo (Photo: Getty)
Some places in Canada are burning garbage to generate power. Burnaby, B.C. has had an energy-from-waste plant for more than 20 years.
According to Metro Vancouver's website, each year the plant "turns approximately 280,000 tonnes of garbage into 900,000 tonnes of steam, providing both economic and environmental benefits."
You can see the plant in action in the Metro Vancouver video below:
Vancouver has also been investigating the possibility of building six new energy-from-waste plants around the Lower Mainland - but as CBC News reported in 2009, some people are concerned that promoting the technology sends the wrong message.
"If people get into the mindset that 'Oh, it doesn't matter how much waste we make because it's a clean, green renewable resource' - which it's not - then why should they bother to reduce their waste," said Brock MacDonald, of the Recycling Council of B.C.
Another Canadian energy-from-waste plant is expected to be completed and generating electricity for commercial use in 2016. It's the Durham/York Region waste-to-energy incinerator, which is being built by Covanta Energy Corp under a contract with the Ontario Power Authority.