Not long ago, the term "waste-to-energy" was used primarily to refer to incinerators or "mass burn" facilities that turned refuse into a few kilowatt hours of electricity in regions that did not have much landfill space.
As energy and fuel costs have risen (and landfill space has hardly multiplied, it should be noted), more research and development time and more investment dollars have been poured into squeezing some type of energy out of discarded materials.
Examples ranging from the mixed plastics-to-truck-fuel initiative of Sita UK (see "Fueling a Fleet" in the June 2011 Recycling Today) to a number of refuse-derived fuel technologies have attracted funding for pilot programs and beyond.
Keeping Wheels Moving
Sita UK is not the only company turning to alternative fuels to address one of its largest operating costs. Houston-based Waste Management Inc., among the largest waste and recycling collection and processing companies in the United States, added the thousandth natural gas (CNG) truck to its fleet of collection vehicles in July 2011.
At a ceremony at its Carson, Calif., property, the company commemorated the delivery of its thousandth natural gas vehicle with the mayor of the nearby city of Long Beach starting up the new recycling collection, truck which will serve his city's residents.
"This is a special milestone in our journey to develop the cleanest fleet of heavy-duty trucks in our industry," Duane Woods, a senior vice president at Waste Management, said.
The trucks Waste Management runs out of its Carson service yard—as well as one-third of its California natural-gas-fueled fleet—are powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG) derived from the decomposition of organic waste at its Altamont Landfill in Livermore, Calif. Since November of 2009, the landfill has been generating as much as 13,000 gallons of LNG per day. Waste Management calls it "a virtually zero-carbon transportation fuel."
In one year's time, Waste Management's 1,000 natural gas trucks will displace 8 million gallons of petroleum and eliminate 45,100 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the company.
"I'm pleased to celebrate the opening of this new facility that's quite literally turning trash into fuel and helping us reach our environmental goals by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and creating a healthier atmosphere for all Californians," stated Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, at the opening of the Altamont LNG plant.
Waste Management also has CNG and LNG fueling stations at 17 of its facilities throughout North America, with more under development. Woods says the company hopes to develop a new landfill-gas-to-LNG facility at its landfill in Simi Valley, Calif.
In 2003, Waste Management committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through increased recycling, the use of alternative transportation fuels and the beneficial use of landfill gas.
Also in North America, containerboard manufacturing and recycling firm RockTenn Co., Norcross, Ga., has signed an agreement to convert its mill byproduct into fuel using Plastic2Oil technology from JBI Inc., Thorold, Ontario.
Under the agreement, JBI has an exclusive 10-year license with a renewal option to build and operate Plastic2Oil processors at RockTenn facilities to process plastics recovered at the company's paper mills and material recovery facilities and to mine and process plastics from RockTenn's monofill sites.
RockTenn has been storing its plastics byproduct in company-owned plastics-only monofill sites for several years. The agreement gives JBI the exclusive rights to mine plastics from these sites and convert them to the variety of fuels—including gasoline, diesel fuel and propane—produced through the Plastic2Oil process.
"RockTenn has the industrial relationship and feedstock to support hundreds of Plastic2Oil processors," John Bordynuik, JBI founder and CEO, says.
And in the United Kingdom, Enval, based in Cambridge, England, has announced a partnership with several consumer goods brand owners to support the construction of a commercial scale facility for what Enval calls its "new material recovery technology."
Enval says its technology offers a recycling opportunity for flexible laminate packaging that has, to date, been largely unrecyclable. The technology separates the material into its constituent components, producing clean aluminium that can be recycled, "while the hydrocarbons can be used as fuel or chemical feedstock," according to the company.
"Enval is delighted to announce the formation of the Enval Consortium," says Enval Business Development Director David Boorman. "By participating in this consortium," he continues, "our partners are clearly demonstrating their commitment to tackling the environmental consequences arising from their own products' end-of-life."
A news release from Enval notes the process can expand the recycling opportunities for packaging such as pouches for drinks and pet food, aseptic drink cartons and laminate tubes.
Enval, originally formed as a spin-off from the University of Cambridge's Department of Chemical Engineering, is a privately funded company. According to www.enval.com, the consortium includes Kraft Foods and Nestlé.
Better than Burying
At an annual meeting of solid waste district and landfill managers from throughout North America, much of the programming focused on the topic of waste to energy.
Several panelists at a session on waste to energy (WTE) at Wastecon 2011, the annual convention of SWANA (the Solid Waste Association of North America), also had witnessed earlier versions of waste-to-energy technology as a growing trend within the industry.
For the most part, though, the panelists were encouraged that solid waste districts could learn from earlier booms and create systems that can serve their communities well for decades to come.
Paul Stoller of Stoller Consulting said a document prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) back in the 1970s remained a good road map for districts and consultants embarking on a WTE project today.
The EPA Resource Recovery Management Model, said Stoller, "provides a comprehensive description of all the activities necessary to complete a project."
The "comprehensive" part may be intimidating, Stoller said, but it is important. "Many projects have been [derailed] because of shortcuts," he remarked. The EPA document calls for the hardest steps, such as site selection, to be put first, so a project's feasibility can be determined up front rather than later.
Alan Cohen of consulting firm HDR, based in Boston, provided attendees a list of such uncertainties that must be addressed when embarking on a project. Cohen's list included site selection as well as having a steady supply of feedstock (waste) at the front end and a home for residuals at the end of the process.
Studying technology, Cohen noted, was a phase that could be endless. New technologies carry a risk of not working as promised when built to a larger scale, which may have been one of the reasons the Durham-York region in Ontario has broken ground a on a mass-burn WTE facility—the first new such plant in Canada in 22 years, according to Cohen.
Tom Reardon of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. (GBB, www.gbbinc.com), a consulting firm based in Fairfax, Va., provided an overview of waste-to-energy projects underway or in the later planning stages in North America. He said GBB's research reveals that there are more than 500 companies in North America either offering waste- and residuals-to-energy technology or project development services.
Reardon said some 54 percent of what is considered the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream is currently landfilled. If half of this material went to WTE facilities, he said landfill space could be greatly extended while a significant amount of power also could be generated.
For a morning keynote session at the 2011 Wastecon event, several current and former SWANA board members and other panelists were convened to discuss the topic of "Game Changers," or fundamental changes underway in the solid waste industry.
Foremost among those topics were waste-to-energy and recycling initiatives and the potential for an increasingly smaller percentage of discarded materials to head to landfills.
Panelists such as Patrick Carroll of Palm Beach County (Fla.) and current SWANA President Jim Warner of Lancaster County (Pa.) remarked that their solid waste districts had recently invested heavily in waste-to-energy capacity.
Warner commented that extending the life of the landfill used to be the main reason for investing in such systems. Republic Services, among the largest waste and recycling hauling and processing companies in the U.S., also operates more than 200 landfills. The company's Senior Vice President of Communications Will Flower, however, said customers increasingly communicate that they'd like to avoid sending discarded materials there.
Looking back to the early days of SWANA in the 1960s, a ton of waste picked up by haulers was likely to result in a ton of material taken to a landfill, said Flower. That equation has changed significantly. "More and more material is recycled or composted," Flower said. "Customers have changed, both waste districts and commercial customers."
Al Lynch of the solid waste department in North Vancouver, British Columbia, says his district has reached a 60 percent diversion goal, and he would not be surprised if that rate goes even higher with the advent of extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws in Canada. EPR laws in Canada often impose municipal recycling and collection costs onto consumer products and packaging companies. "The goal of EPR is so the products will be designed better [for recycling] by producers," Lynch says.
Although SWANA includes the word "waste" in its name, moderator Tom Parker, of consulting company CDM, based in Cambridge, Mass., asked panelists whether "waste" could appropriately be replaced by the word "resources."
Patrick Carroll of Palm Beach County was accepting of the terminology change. "We're using even non-recyclables to generate power," Carroll said. "Absolutely it's a resource."
Wastecon 2011 was Aug. 23-25 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn.
The author is editorial director of Recycling Today and can be contacted at email@example.com. This article originally ran in the Sept./Oct. issue of Recycling Today Global Edition, a sister publication.