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A New Way to Burn Trash?

A suburban Chicago business says it's found a way to make trash virtually disappear, as Kerry Gilfillan reports.

Wherever people go, garbage follows, and Taiwan has more people per square mile than most countries.

Plus, it has a pig population so big it more than doubles the waste generated by the Taiwanese.

On an island one quarter the size of Illinois, either the people, the pigs or the garbage has to go.

Ripes: (crackle of plastic bag) Basically what I'm holding, the glassy silicate here, used to be one hundred pounds of medical waste.

That's Daniel Ripes.

Daniel works for PEAT International, a company based in Northbrook.

I asked him how to make garbage disappear and he brought me four black rocks in a sandwich bag.

They're lumps of char from a waste disposal plant in Taiwan's National Cheng Kung University.

Sound of gurgling plasma torch

That is the sound of 100 pounds of shrinking Taiwanese garbage.

PEAT builds plasma arc reactors that roast rubbish at 2800 degrees by electrocuting it.

A ton of trash is reduced to a dense black residue and a few puffs of gas

The hard residue is ground up for concrete and the gas is used for electricity, which feeds back into the reactor.

Ripes: We are generating enough electricity in which we're covering our own electricity consumption and we have excess to give back to the grid, so we're almost a closed loop system at that point.

Since the garbage fuels its own destruction, the process can be very efficient.

But, environmental activists say it's just another form of incineration - which creates other problems.

Monica Wilson is with a group called Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

Wilson: I see them sort of as garbage addicts because they keep requiring steady streams of trash which means if you're a community that has an incinerator, there's no incentive to recycle those materials that are going to the incinerator because the incinerator needs them, they have contracts that require certain amounts of waste.

Daniel Ripes is careful to distinguish between plasma arc reactors and incinerators.

There's very little oxygen in a plasma reactor precisely to prevent the garbage from burning.

But since the reactor burns gas to run, and that gas comes from the garbage, Wilson says there's no difference.

And she has other worries.

Wilson: There are definitely studies which show that plasma arc incineration can create dioxins which is one of the most toxic substances known to man.

Dioxins are part of the reason Chicago shut down its municipal incinerators in the 80s and 90s.

Wilson wants to make sure they don't come back.

But from Ripes's perspective, the company is on the same side as the environmentalists.

And, that's just the trouble.

Ripes: If this isn't a recycling technology, I would like to know what their definition of it is. Because in its purest form what we're doing is we're taking materials that society has deemed as waste, as unneeded, as unwanted, and we are turning it into materials that can be used in the aftermarket.

The company wants to build two Midwest facilities including one in Indianapolis.

Since it's selling itself as a high-tech recycler, it could become a competitor with traditional recyclers.

But Ripes says there's no need for worry.

The last thing the company wants to do is alienate potential partners.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Kerry Gilfillan

Release date: 4/9/2007