New Jersey's plan to develop energy from trash is a big part of its sustainable future.
Standing atop the 400-acre 1-E landfill, you get a panoramic view of the Meadowlands sports complex to the north and the New York City skyline to the east. You also get a glimpse at a critical part of New Jersey's energy future.
It's right beneath your feet: decades worth of household trash, construction waste and assorted refuse that is providing electricity to thousands of homes.
"It's like you're buying back your own garbage, but in a different form," said Tom Marturano, director of solid waste and natural resources for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, which owns and operates the 1-E site.
The Kearny site is among 21 landfills in New Jersey that convert methane gas produced by decomposing trash into electricity, according to the state Board of Public Utilities. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has targeted eight more potential sites as part of its Landfill Methane Outreach Program. Nationwide, the EPA counts 455 landfills that convert methane into energy.
One of the state's leading environmentalists envisions landfills someday incorporating wind and solar power in concert with methane gas.
"We see landfills as potential New Age energy plants, because you can combine all three and create a steady source of power -- and not everybody wants a windmill in their back yard," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.
While Marturano cautioned that adding wind farms might take a while since landfill surfaces are constantly shifting, the Meadowlands Commission already has plans to install 20 acres of solar panels on the southern side of the 1-E landfill.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine's draft energy master plan released in April touts landfill methane gas as one of the renewable energy sources that the state hopes will combine to supply 20 percent of New Jersey's electricity consumption by 2020.
While wind and solar power are in their relative infancy in New Jersey -- Corzine announced the state's first offshore wind power project earlier this month -- landfills have been converting methane gas into electricity in the state for more than two decades.
Mike Winka, director of the BPU's Office of Clean Energy, said new landfills in New Jersey are required to be designed to accommodate methane gas collection. Existing landfills have the advantage of being able to produce methane long after they've been shut down.
A case in point is the Kingsland landfill, adjacent to 1-E, where the freshest garbage is from 1987, according to Marturano. That means the half-eaten Big Mac you threw away at the end of the Reagan administration may be helping to light your neighbor's home today.
Marturano estimates the 1-E landfill can keep collecting methane gas for another 20 years or so. He said the energy produced by the four landfills in the Meadowlands district powers about 25,000 homes.
Other landfills like the Edgeboro facility in East Brunswick operated by the Middlesex County Utilities Authority actively accept trash while converting it into energy. The landfill began collecting methane gas in 2001 and currently produces about 13 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the county's wastewater treatment plant in Sayreville.
That saved the authority about $3 million in 2007, according to executive director Rich Fitamant.
Methane gas is produced by micro-organisms that feed off the organic matter in trash. The bacteria are not picky eaters, and have adapted to feasting on wood, cardboard or plastic if food waste is not available.
"It's evolution on a fast track," Marturano said.
The gas is collected by a large vacuum connected to a network of long cylindrical tubes with perforated bases that are drilled down into the landfill. Inactive landfills like 1-E are capped, usually with a plastic or rubber covering that helps trap any excess gas from escaping.
The raw gas is then processed and converted into electricity and delivered to the power grid via an interconnect, which resembles a scaled down power plant.
"People used to think of the landfills as wasted space," Marturano said. "But we're turning them from the juvenile delinquents of the district into productive members of society."