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The growing prominence of waste conversion technologies received considerable attention at the 2012 SWANA Wastecon event.

October 8, 2012
Brian Taylor

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, a commemoration that received some of the attention at its national Wastecon event, held Aug. 14-16 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md.

Also receiving considerable attention were waste conversion technologies and waste-to-energy systems, which were the topic of technical sessions and exhibit hall sessions throughout the three-day event.

Picking up on the 2012 Wastecon theme of “Renewable and Sustainable Resources –Right in Your Back Yard,” attendees often filled the rooms of waste-to-energy related sessions and engaged in active question-and-answer periods after presentations.

Jump Start
Converting waste into energy is not revolutionary and has occurred for decades, but a series of presenters an Aug. 14 Wastecon session said a momentous shift in thinking and investment is about to revitalize this sector.

Harvey Gershman, a principal with waste and recycling consulting firm Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. (GBB, www.gbbinc.com), Fairfax, Va., offered an update of a presentation that he admitted the firm had been using for 10 years.

Gershman noted that the timetables on many waste conversion projects mentioned in his presentation have moved ahead in 2012. That list includes an Enerkem waste-to-energy plant in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; the INEOS Bio plant in Vero Beach, Fla., now beginning to ramp up; and a Plasco Energy Group waste conversion facility in Salinas Valley, Calif.

Many of the current projects involve conversion technologies that are not necessarily proven on a large-volume scale, noted Gershman. He also noted, though, that at least one major “mass burn” plant is under construction in the Durham-York region of Ontario, Canada.

One major project on which the plug has been pulled was a planned waste-to-energy plant in Port St. Lucie, Fla., noted Gershman.

A Devilish Problem

Speaking to attendees of a workshop at the 2012 Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Wastecon event, held in August, Gareth Morton of United Kingdom-based AEA Technology noted that to parts of the general public, “God recycles [and] the devil burns.”

The “burning” aspect of this equation is used in reference to waste-to-energy projects, which no matter what technology they use seem invariably to be portrayed by opponents as smoke-spewing incinerators.

“Waste facilities are not popular neighbors,” said Morton, referring not only to waste-to-energy plants but also transfer stations, landfills and even recycling plants.

Morton said any sizable project such as a waste-to-energy plant involves public issues such as health, traffic flow, property values and environmental protection.

Stakeholders, including solid waste officials, “can determine how much time they want to give” early on to addressing these issues, Morton said, but he recommended consultation with the public from an early stage, even if it necessitates significant changes to an initial plan. This approach, he said, is better than “decide and defend.”

Such public consultation is necessary in part, said Morton, because it’s a “fact of life [that] people no longer trust decision-makers.” Even when advance communication takes place, added Morton, the main causes of solid waste project delays are “local concerns and NIMBY (not in my backyard) activists.”

Morton gave an overview of a toolkit that AEA helped develop for project managers in Wales, where the country must rapidly build the infrastructure to meet a 70 percent landfill diversion target.

He said the toolkit “is not a new concept” but that, along with accompanying training, can prepare waste-to-energy or anaerobic digestion project backers with ways to tell their story and to prepare for opposition.

There are no short-cuts or secrets that can help a project proceed quietly, Morton indicated. “Community engagement can be expensive, but not engaging can be even more costly,” he stated.

The 2012 SWANA WasteCon event was held Aug. 14-16 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md.

Presenter Chris Koczaja of PHG Energy, La-Vergne, Tenn., described PHG’s gasification technology and provided an update on the company’s recent projects. He described PHG’s gasification systems as providing “scalable, clean energy for large and small projects and waste streams.”

The company is installing a system in cooperation with the City of Covington, Tenn., to convert biosolids and wood trimmings into power that will be used to run the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Presenter Dirk Andreas of Montreal-based Enerkem (www.enerkem.com) touted the benefits of his company’s ability to convert several forms of waste into transportation fuel. “We feel the thermo-dynamic path is better, because there are more options as far as what end products we can produce,” said Andreas.

He added that, unlike corn ethanol, using waste as a feedstock creates transportation fuel “that does not compete with food” while still “displacing our reliance on petroleum.”

Andreas said that if the estimated 140 million tons of MSW generated in the U.S. was converted to fuel, it would result in some 14 billion gallons of ethanol.

Enerkem is currently building a plant that will convert the City of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada’s unrecyclable MSW into fuel and also has large-scale plants under construction in Pontotoc, Miss., and Varennes, Quebec, Canada (near Montreal).

WM Keeps its Options Open
Waste Management Inc. (WM), Houston, may be one of the largest and most well-established waste and recycling companies in the U.S., but one of its top managers readily admitted that the company is not too old or too big to learn.

In a presentation at the 2012 Wastecon event, William Caesar, president of Waste Management Recycle America, said when it comes to waste-to-energy technologies, “Our intention is to learn . . . and then commercialize that technology [where] it makes sense.”

The company has made investments in more than a half-dozen waste conversion technology companies. Caesar said WM believes it is “advantageous to place a series of small bets instead of one big bet” in the waste-to-energy market.

The conversion technology companies in which WM has invested include:

  • Enerkem, a thermo-chemical fuels and energy producer based in Montreal;
  • Fulcrum Energy, Pleasanton, Calif., a waste-to-transportation fuel technology provider;
  • Genomatica, a San Diego-based company with technology to convert waste to chemicals;
  • Harvest Power, Waltham, Mass., a producer of anaerobic digestion and composting systems;
  • Agilyx, Beaverton, Ore., a maker of plastic scrap-to-fuel systems; and
  • InEnTec, Bend, Ore., a plasma arc gasification equipment maker.

Caesar indicated the portfolio of investments—as well as joint ventures with energy companies such as Valero, Total and Linde Gas—are helping WM spread out its waste-to-energy efforts to include several conversion technologies.

As the operator of 266 active landfills and the owner of closed landfills, WM also is focusing on landfill gas-to-energy systems.

When it comes to traditional mass-burn waste-to-energy plants, in which WM has a presence at 17 locations in part because of its Wheelabrator Technologies subsidiary, Caesar said, “All things being equal, I think we’ll see less incineration [in the future] because there will be technologies that will be less expensive and bring more value.”

Caesar also remarked on WM’s ongoing investment in materials recycling, including its operation of 95 material recovery facilities (MRFs) and a considerable recycling collection fleet.

He described himself as “a proponent of single-stream,” but when asked indicated that he did not necessarily see an evolution toward mixed waste processing facilities, or “dirty MRFs.” Said Caesar, “There is still value in that first separation. Somebody pays me for that relatively clean commodity. I would rather maintain two truck routes because of the value of this relatively clean material.” Referring to additional source separation, Caesar added, “I don’t want to go to nine trucks, but I’ll keep two.”

Rewards Following the Risks
Building a waste-to-energy (WTE) facility can be risky both financially and politically, but once they are in place they can gain rapid acceptance, according to three presenters at an Aug. 14 Wastecon event.

At a session titled “Implementing WTE to Green Your System,” three different speakers offered comments on both how energy-from-waste plants can gain approval and their value to a city or waste district once they are in place.

Sarah Garvan of the Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities (DEF), New Rochelle, N.Y., provided an overview of how that county’s waste-to-energy plant has been a vital part of its solid waste and recycling strategy since 1984.

Garvan commented that Westchester County has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that its WTE plant has not supplanted recycling. Currently, Westchester County has a 52 percent recycling rate, well above the 33 percent U.S. average and 36 percent New York state average, according to Garvan.

The DEF as well as most of the county’s 940,000 residents support “a continued investment in recycling,” said Garvan, who noted that the county is constantly adding to the materials mix it collects for recycling and also tickets residents when recyclable material is found in their garbage containers.

While Westchester County considers its WTE plant to be “part of the reduce, re-use, recycle paradigm,” Garvan said the 52 percent recycling rate sends the message, “We don’t burn all our trash.”

Presenter John Foden of Toronto-based public relations firm PresterJohn serves as executive director of the Canadian Energy-from-Waste Coalition, which has helped counteract what can often be vocal opposition to waste-to-energy projects in that nation.

Foden said that while his organization can help, for a WTE project to be built, a “political champion,” such as a mayor or city council person who will “not be overwhelmed by vocal opponents” and who is willing to take risks and speak clearly in favor of the project, is needed.

He urged WTE project planners to provide their political champions with information that is technical enough to point out inaccuracies in what opponents might claim but yet can be communicated easily “to eighth graders in a church basement.”

Foden said project planners should expect early public meetings “to be, honestly, horrible,” as the loudest, most demonstrative opponents seek to attract media attention and to influence voters. “The sensationalizing will eventually run its course,” he advised.

He added that WTE project planners should always be available to meet with the media and to present their side. He suggested that telephone polling could be an effective way to find out what percentage of the population in a community is genuinely either opposed to or supportive of a project.

Gareth Morton of United Kingdom-based AEA Technology (www.aeat.co.uk) offered a presentation prepared by his colleague Adam Read on how mechanical biological treatment (MBT) methods have been able to gain greater acceptance in the U.K. compared with energy recovery methods perceived as combustion or incineration.

Implementing either MBT or WTE technologies is critical in the U.K., where a series of directives and targets is in play to discourage landfilling, he said. The country’s waste districts “need to identify and invest in bankable solutions,” Morton added.

MBT systems, involving separation, composting and anaerobic digestion technologies, have a green image and “are seen as politically acceptable,” Morton said, while WTE technologies are commonly painted as “incinerators” and are usually vigorously opposed by environmentalist activists.

Of concern, Morton said, is that MBT methods can only treat segments of the waste stream and they are most effective with “a relatively consistent feedstock.” He said he was wary of “white elephants” being built in this category while more all-encompassing WTE systems are delayed because of vocal opposition from the community.


The author is editorial director and association publisher of the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net. This article first appeared in the fall issue of Recycling Today’s sister publication Renewable Energy from Waste.