Climate Change: Garbage Gets Fresh Look as Source of Energy

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Times change, and yesterday's environmental problem starts to look like today's solution. That is what is happening with trash.

Over the past two decades, the U.S. has shut down hundreds of pollution-spewing waste incinerators on the belief that burning detritus was a bigger environmental sin than burying it.

Today, most American garbage is sent to landfills, some spanning hundreds of acres miles from the cities that generate the refuse. New York City, which tosses about eight million tons of nonindustrial trash each year, trucks much of it to big landfills in states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Landfills have been convenient. But they are falling out of favor as improved technology and changing environmental priorities start to upend the old thinking about garbage.

Past orthodoxy held that burning trash was bad because it spewed toxic substances into the air. In an era when the big environmental threat was localized pollution like smog and cancer-causing plumes, landfills seemed the lesser evil.

Dirty air is still a concern, but now it has been eclipsed by fears of global climate change. In that calculus of environmental harm, recent research suggests, burning trash is better than burying it.

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