Garbage Power!

A company turns household garbage into electricity.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Trash is turned into electricity at a Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. plant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Garbage trucks dump municipal waste into a pit. Cranes that look like the arcade game "The Claw" pick up the trash and drop it into bins called hoppers that empty from the bottom. When the trash empties, it goes into a furnace where it is burned.

The furnace produces hot gases that travel through boiler tubes. This produces high-pressure steam, which is sent to a turbine. The steam turns the turbines, generating electricity.

Burning trash leaves behind metals and ash. The metals are sent to recycling plants. The ash is placed in a landfill, taking up much less room than if it was still the original garbage hauled in from your family trash bin.    

"Our number one goal is that no one gets hurt and the environment doesn't get hurt," said Plant Manager Scott McIlvaine as he gave Scholastic News a tour of the plant.

Visitors can view the entire facility from the control room, the "eagle's eye" of the plant. Operators works 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts.

About 2,250 tons of trash are processed here each day. The facility can generate 66,000 kilowatts of electricity from that.

Claw operators monitor the amount of trash that is going into the hoppers. The goal is around 184 pounds dropped in per hour, with a maximum of 187 pounds.

Wheelabrator Technologies doesn't just burn diapers and kitchen and yard waste. The company also contracts with police departments to burn confiscated drugs. Pharmaceutical companies contract with Wheelabrator to burn drugs that are out of date or obsolete.
Workers at Wheelabrator have to have experience and education.

"You must have an engineering and math background," said McIlvaine. "You must have a good work ethic, and you can't be late."

The company has 17 plants around the nation, including in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Washington. They also have five independent power plants and two ash landfills.

"Company-wide, we have processed more than 164 million tons of municipal solid waste and generated 86 billion kilowatts of energy—the equivalent to 164 million barrels of oil or 43 million tons of coal," McIlvaine said. "This is a company that was built on innovation, diligence, and progressive thinking."


Celebrate Earth Day and the fight to keep our planet clean on April 22. Scholastic Kid Reporters explore ways to make every day Earth Day in the Earth Day 2011 Special Report.


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    Real-World Science, Natural Resources, Earth Day

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