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Entangled Energy

March 4, 2009

Remember those resourceful Dutch people we told you about in October? Life gave them lemons (in the form of 1.2 million pounds of chickensh*t) and they made lemonade, or, more accurately, 270 million kWh of electricity.

Golly, if we burned all of our excessive crap, we’d have a lot of energy…and a lot of crap-ashes.

Well, guess what: poop isn’t the only kind of crap that can be turned into power. Other kinds of waste (i.e. garbage) work too. Energy-from-waste programs burn garbage to create electricity. In general, burning one ton of waste produces 520 kWh of electricity. While the process of burning something (anything) produces greenhouse gas emissions, burning garbage prevents the methane production that would occur in a landfill. (Methane has a rep as a pretty potent greenhouse gas—significantly more potent than carbon dioxide—and landfills are the largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.) The claim, according to the folks in the garbage-burning business, is that every ton of trash combusted in an energy-from-waste facility actually prevents the equivalent of one ton of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.    

Perhaps more important than the questionably brilliant concept of burning crap to curb climate change, however, is the origin of the crap. A small, but very important, part of the “waste” in the waste-from-energy equation comes from the ocean. Officially termed “marine debris,” this ocean crap raises a lot less havoc when it’s on dry land.

Derelict fishing lines and nets (known as “ghost nets” because they continue to catch fish even when they’re abandoned) haunt every ocean. Wayward fishing gear destroys delicate corals as it bashes against coral reefs and causes serious damage as it wraps around everything from sea turtles to cetaceans—and even boat propellers.

North Atlantic right whales, in particular, have a bad habit of getting tangled up in fishing gear. (They also have a tendency to get hit by ships and were once known as the “right” whale to kill because they were such an easy target for whalers and floated to the surface when killed.) Scientists estimate that at least 72% of the North Atlantic right whale population has been entangled at some point and that 10-20% of the population becomes entangled each year. So far this year, scientists have counted five entangled right whales (compared to the typical one or two), which is kind of a big deal for a population of 300-400 animals.

Right whales* may not be the brightest crayons in the box, but we can’t make them smarter or teach them how to slalom through ex-fishing gear. We can, however, get rid of some of the gear that’s crowding their ocean. Through a Hawaiian program called “Nets to Energy,” a mainland program called “Fishing for Energy” and a New Hampshire initiative known as the “marine debris to energy project,” fishermen and marine debris specialists have yanked tons of ratty old fishing gear out of the oceans. Since 1996, more than 760 tons of decrepit fishing gear has been pulled out of the Pacific waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. On the mainland, 11 Northeastern ports participated in the first year of Fishing for Energy and collected more than 123 tons of gear. The New Hampshire program is the youngest, smallest, and most poorly named. Still, the program collected 3.8 tons of marine debris in its first six months.

Is there a moral to this story? Absolutely. When life gives you lemons or poop or marine debris, make lemonade (or an appropriate alternative).


*Right whales aren’t the only large whales that get entangled. Between 2002 and 2006, there were 145 entanglements of large whales—mostly humpback and minke whales—along the U.S. east coast, adjacent Canadian Maritimes and the Gulf of Mexico coast. 

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