Burning Questions

The waste-to-energy industry touts its technology as environmentally friendly, but critics claim it’s just incineration in disguise. IST Energy has developed the Green Energy Machine (GEM), a waste-to-energy conversion system. The GEM system processes food, paper, plastic, wood and agricultural waste. President and CEO Stu Haber says that the GEM “is not incineration…It is an elegantly controlled internal process unit, with a number of feedback loops.”

The dumpster-sized GEM is intended for businesses, apartment complexes, universities, and other places that produce between two and three tons of trash daily. Haber says the gasification process GEM uses “is not burning [but] a thermal process using extremely high heat.” The waste is turned into pellets, which are then converted into synthetic gas. The gas is fed into a generator that produces electric power. The system costs around $850,000.

Bradley Angel, the executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, has long disputed that waste-to-energy technologies are environmentally friendly. The materials GEM can handle “should be recycled or composted,” he says. In the process of converting pellets into gas, harmful gases such as CO2, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides are emitted. Angel explains that “if the pellets are made from plastics, they will likely have chlorinated materials and metals, and agricultural waste has pesticides.”

Neil Seldman, the president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, supports zero-waste initiatives—composting and recycling programs that aim for a 90% diversion rate. “When food and agricultural waste are composted and plastics and paper recycled, there isn’t anything left to burn,” he says.