There's a burst of activity in the waste-to-energy sector in the United States as a handful of companies work toward developing new technologies for converting municipal garbage into something more useful -- electricity, heat and biofuels.
More than half the waste produced in the country goes into landfills. Between a quarter and a third is recycled, and a small amount is used for energy recovery. A renewed and increased interest in recycling and a need to cut down on fossil fuel dependence has led to the expansion of some waste energy facilities, and a few new players are entering the field.
Maryland-based Fiberight is one company with two facilities that has developed its own technology and processes. "We make sugars from trash, and once we make sugars we have plenty to do with them," says Craig Stewart-Paul, the CEO of Fiberight.
The company has completed a successful demonstration run of its fully integrated plant in Lawrenceville, Va., that processes up to 20 tons of garbage in an hour. Unsegregated trash straight from the municipal trash truck is prescreened. Large items like mattresses, microwaves and toilets are removed. The bulk of the remaining waste containing organic, plastic and metal material is pulped.
This is where Fiberight's innovation comes in. The trash is not run into the plant under high pressure, as is the conventional method, but under low pressure and below-boiling temperatures that sterilize it and remove smells. When the waste comes out, the organics are rendered into a pulp but the plastics remain untouched.
The plastic is easily removed for recycling or conversion into high-value waxy oils or fuels. The metals are clean and sterile for recycling. The cellulosic organic material in the biomass is separated from the soluble organic material, which is then digested in the absence of air to produce sugars and biofuels and then methane.
Replacing corn with trash
"We've actually produced finished fuel that I have out in my car," Stewart-Paul says. "We have actually produced tanker loads."
The company intends to expand the Virginia plant and is moving ahead with a commercial plant in a converted corn-to-ethanol facility in Blairstown, Iowa. It has received permits for this plant along with $425 million in federal funding and $3 million from the state. Stewart-Paul says each plant will need only about 300 tons to 500 tons of trash a day, an amount easily sourced from local communities including Cedar Rapids.
The best part of the process is its economics, Stewart-Paul says. "We have the ability to convert them [waste products] far more efficiently into much more money. ... The money is the best part of the green in that it needs to be economically viable to be a commercially sustainable process."
Renewable energy mavens are also watching the INEOS New Planet BioEnergy project in Florida. The facility, which uses yard, vegetative and agricultural waste, began producing power at the end of October. The plant now runs on its own power and expects to provide electricity to 1,400 homes in Vero Beach.
Realizing that landfills are an underused resource, localities ranging from New York City to Prince William County, Va., have requested proposals from innovative companies to convert waste or landfill gas into energy.
Garbage economics 101
Enlightened elected officials who support waste-to-energy innovation are exactly what the sector is looking for, says Harvey Gershman, president of solid waste consulting company Gershman, Brickner & Bratton. Companies are also looking for low-cost locations and for financers with deep enough pockets to absorb a "technology burp," a second chance if the first attempt at a coherent process fails.
The public, on the other hand, is simply looking for low-risk, low-cost waste disposal, something that will get rid of the trash.
"At the end of the day today, there is no disposal crisis in this country. There's plenty of disposal capacity out there, it's just a matter of preference and cost that one needs to be thinking about," Gershman says.
He thinks the push for waste-to-energy innovation is driven by garbage economics -- the prospect that something that is already collected and often free, such as garbage, can produce cheap energy that is competitive with gasoline prices. This also means that garbage recycling and conversion must be competitive with the cost of landfilling.
"In the U.K. and E.U., landfills are taxed $50 to $100 a ton. The economics of landfills is prohibitive or prohibited, and here [in the United States] we haven't done that. That's the major difference," Gershman says.
Apart from landfill taxes imposed by European countries, the European Union has issued a number of directives on waste management over the past decade. Landfilling organic material has been banned. The European Union has created a framework for disposal of hazardous, nonhazardous and inert waste and has issued technical specification for waste-to-energy plants to limit pollution and to ensure that more waste is not simply transferred to E.U. countries where environmental requirements are less stringent.
Sweden begins to import trash
E.U. laws gave the bloc the necessary push to process its waste efficiently, and perhaps the biggest success story has evolved in Sweden.
The country has 32 waste-to-energy plants with a total capacity of 5.5 million tons of waste. Half the waste that is incinerated comes from households and the other half from industry. The heat from incineration is used to provide electricity and heating to homes.
Remarkably, Sweden now faces a problem of plenty. Since the start of the economic crisis in late 2007, industrial waste has fallen dramatically, leaving the country's waste-to-energy plants with excess capacity. Rather than have these plants idle and use coal, oil or natural gas to make up for the power and heating vacuum, Sweden is looking to import trash from its neighbors.
This isn't the first time Sweden will be importing garbage, says Weine Wiqvist, the managing director of Avfall Sverige, or Swedish Waste Management. The country has been taking in Norway's trash since 2008, when Norway didn't have enough facilities to process its trash. Sweden is now simply going to increase its garbage imports.
"Right now about this year, we need to import about 800,000 tons. Because of the efforts of increased recycling and some capacity still being built, in the next three or four years we will need to import about 1.3 [million] to 1.4 million tons yearly," Wiqvist says.
Sending their trash to Sweden may be the most attractive option to countries that have landfill bans and high landfill taxes. Comparative costs could even make it worth paying a gate fee of €50 ($65) a ton when the trash reaches Sweden. Even emissions from transporting garbage are marginal compared with the methane gas savings from processing trash rather than landfilling it, Wiqvist says.
Overcapacity isn't a problem that the fledgling waste-to-energy sector in the United States needs to worry about for a while. What it might encounter are obstacles from environmentalists. "At the end of the day, when you start to talk about these types of projects, they will be called incinerators by environmentalists who will say you can recycle everything. Well, you can't recycle everything," says Gershman, who emphasizes that the new incinerators within waste processing plants are a far cry from the emission-spewing dirty incinerators of old.
Gershman offers a simple distinction, the main idea behind waste-to-energy technology. Incineration "is like taking your tea kettle and letting the steam go out into the room. But in this kettle [waste-to-energy plant], you're taking the steam and using it to turn a turbine to produce power."