Letters From The Earth

Waste to energy

September 3, 2009

I finished my last column with a promise to introduce a new company that will process non-recyclables and make fuel pellets for "thermal recycling" applications. Unfortunately, I have been unable to obtain a release to describe its business and process. I'll continue to press them for this and once I've gained their permission will write about them in a future issue.

Thermal recycling is really nothing more than a fancy name for waste-to-energy (WTE). If our industry can divert matrix and other pressure sensitive wastes that are generated in almost every part of our supply chain into WTE, we will have provided a solution that will make us more competitive with other print technologies. Therefore, I'd like to bring you up to date with this industry.

First, I'm sure you would agree that the cost of energy will continue to rise. Whether it is oil, electricity, or natural gas, fossil fuel costs will not stay static. Part of the interest in alternative energies such as wind, solar and geothermal is environmental, to be sure. But the other interest is cost. If we are hauling matrix and PSA waste to a landfill, our costs will continue to increase. The cost of gasoline for trucks that handle the waste, landfill tipping fees, and labor all contribute to higher costs. Thermal recycling is an alternative to the continuing cycle of higher costs. Indeed, some day our matrix might actually have value as a feed stock for WTE rather than an element of cost.

Second, it appears that WTE might someday be regarded as a "renewable" resource. There is a huge debate in Washington on the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. In the original draft of this bill WTE was not defined as a renewable source of energy. Furthermore, as part of a federal cap and trade system, the original draft placed a limit on WTE greenhouse gas emissions. It would have required each WTE facility to purchase credits to offset emissions that exceeded the cap. How ironic does it get: diverting waste into energy and then subjecting the industry to meeting cap and trade levels. Shades of the infamous black liquor tax credit scandal.

At any rate, the WTE industry responded to the first draft with requests that the US Congress exempt WTE facilities from the cap and trade requirement. The industry (lobbyists) presented evidence that generating electricity from WTE actually avoids carbon dioxide emissions in comparison to coal fired boilers that generate energy. A spokesperson for the industry also maintained that WTE eliminated methane emissions that would be generated by landfilled waste. There was further research that cited that the processing of a ton of waste at a WTE plant instead of landfilling prevents the release of one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If you look at the WTE industry today, this represents about 30 million tons of landfill diversion which, when translated, reduces a like amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That's big. Another point the industry made was that Kyoto Protocol recognizes the benefits of WTE and supports legislation that encourages installation of WTE facilities.

The final argument to the draft legislation that would have discouraged WTE was the fact that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 recognized WTE as a renewable source. Indeed, 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, supported that same definition. How could the original draft argue with approved legislation?

The results of these arguments brought about a revised draft that recognizes WTE as a generator of renewable electricity. It means the industry can sell renewable energy credits the same as wind, solar, or geothermal. The revised draft also recognizes that WTE is part of the greenhouse gas solution, not part of the problem. While I'm sure there will be further revisions, the first changes are a resounding victory for WTE supporters. This is so important from my point of view because, ultimately, those of us who generate matrix or PSA waste will not be subject to any cap and trade scheme if we divert these by-products into WTE/thermal recycling.

Challenges to WTE

There is another side to this subject. It is the environmental performance of the waste-to-energy industry. Quoting from Waste Age, an industry trade publication:

The waste-to-energy industry may tout its facilities' environmental benefits, but the environmental movement has found fault with the plants. They use a dirty combustion process, activists say, pointing in particular to dioxin emissions. In addition, environmental groups contend that much of the trash that is burned should be recycled, thereby avoiding the need to expend fresh resources to manufacture new products.

In fact, WTE facilities [in the United States] comply with stringent emission standards. In response to the federal Clean Air Act, the industry has installed more than $1 billion in upgrades to emission control systems. The results led the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to congratulate the industry in a letter dated August 10, 2007. In part, the memo read: "The performance of the MACT (maximum achievable control technology) retrofits has been outstanding

"Of particular interest are dioxin/furan and mercury emissions. Since 1990 (pre-MACT conditions), dioxin/furan emissions from large and small MWCs (municipal waste combustion units) have been reduced by more than 99 percent, and mercury emissions have been reduced by more than 96 percent. Dioxin/furan emissions have been reduced to 15 grams per year (from 4,400) and mercury emissions reduced to 2.3 tons/year (from 57)."

The EPA concluded that the overall reductions in emissions enable WTE to generate electricity with "less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity."

As for the recycling complaint, a September 2008 study by Eileen Brettler Berenyi of Governmental Advisory Associates, Westport, CT, USA, found that communities served by WTE facilities on average recycle more than the national recycling average. The average recycling rate in a WTE community is 33.3 percent, compared with the national rate, as computed by the EPA, of 32.5 percent.

Berenyi's report, titled "A Compatibility Study: Recycling and Waste-To-Energy Work in Concert," concluded that "waste-to-energy does not have an adverse impact on local recycling rates. The most influential parameters that affect recycling rates appear to be state policy and the proactive position of a municipality."

Two publicly held companies dominate the waste-to-energy industry. They are Wheelabrater Technologies and Covanta Energy, and between them they have 55 operating waste-to-energy facilities in North America. These are large facilities, some processing upwards of 1,000 tons per day, which generates 55 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 60,000 homes. Along with fuel pellets, thermal recycling makes sense. It is environmentally friendly, it creates alternative energy, and some day, will provide cost avoidance.

Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.
  • Adhesives Update

    Adhesives Update

    Greg Hrinya, Associate Editor||April 7, 2017
    Label adhesives must meet a variety of performance and manufacturing requirements.

  • The Future of Flexo

    The Future of Flexo

    Steve Katz, Editor||April 7, 2017
    Recruitment and proper training are paramount to the health and future of flexography.

  • Latin America’s Label Market

    Latin America’s Label Market

    Greg Hrinya, Associate Editor||March 13, 2017
    Competition and emerging print technologies define this region.