“In Europe, they’ve been doing this for years.” How many times have you heard that when it comes to, oh, about a thousand things? The nations of Europe have run ahead of the United States on public transportation and train travel, health insurance, care for the aged, firearms regulation, infrastructure, energy conservation, recycling and all elements of the climate change challenge. Americans like to smirk at Europe’s holistic lifestyle and we tend to think European innovation is no better than ours. Republicans repeatedly dismiss Europe’s relatively high taxes as a consequence of “evil socialism.”

But, while the U.S. is certainly a wealthy nation, we have been showing the signs of a failing state, with, for instance, a general life expectancy that was falling even before the pandemic (due largely to the opioid epidemic and increasing violence and suicides), back-sliding on educational achievement, a spending gap of an estimated $2 trillion on infrastructure investment and the election and embrace by the Republican Party of a terrible president with little respect for democratic ideals.

Jessup digesters under construction

My Baltimore Sun column today is about a big and cool development on the waste-to-energy front, the “digesting” of organic waste into two marketable products — methane gas and a solid substance that can be used to enhance soil for farming. When I first posted the column on Facebook, one of my followers, Fran Severn-Levy, commented: “I lived in England in the 80s. There was a major project in Liverpool that took an abandoned shipyard and landfill and converted them into a methane power plant. We are so freaking behind the times . . .”

Indeed, the waste-to-energy plant being built in Jessup, Maryland by Bioenergy Devco uses technology that has been around for at least 20 years in Europe. It was developed by an Italian company, now a subsidiary of Bioenergy Devco. (The methane plant pictured atop this post was developed by the Italian firm, BTS Biogas.)

Ken Durbin and the digester tanks

One of the reasons we’re so far behind on developing biogas is contained in four letters: Land. As the Jessup plant’s construction manager, Ken Durbin, noted during my tour of the site: We have such an abudance of land in this country — or did when we first started looking for ways to dispose of our trash — we just opened landfills and filled them. We didn’t think about what that would lead to environmentally; we didn’t think of the possibilities of turning what we waste into something we can use.

I guess the good news is that Big Green is finally starting to happen. But we have so much catching up to do, we should go big, as President Biden suggests, innovate more, build more, put more people to work in ways that will help us not only survive but thrive.

2 thoughts on “‘In Europe, they’ve been doing this for years’

  1. Hi Dan. I owned an environmental business that had an odor control division and we saw American digesters like this back in the 80’s not only at municipal wastewater treatment plants but also on farms digesting manure. The famous Backriver golden eggs are digesters that convert sludge to gas to energy. It’s sad how many environmental innovations are developed here then adopted widely everywhere else. We could have a much stronger manufacturing base if we changed that.


    1. Thanks for this reminder. I am aware of small digesters on farms, and the Back River golden eggs. Because of my reporting on the BDC project in Jessup, I was focused on food waste, though biogas from waste water treatment plants is mentioned along with gas from landfills. Those are included in the aggregate calculations made by the ABC in its biogas outlook.


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