Letters From The Earth

Waste = Energy

May 7, 2010

This year in Barcelona, label guru Mike Fairley made a fascinating presentation at the FINAT Technical Conference. His talk had these focal points: the label industry and the environment, digital label printing, and brand production and authenticity. I listened carefully and because of my own interests found the first topic, the label industry and the environment, the most provoking.

I am convinced that the brand owner and the end user will force environmental changes to our industry if we don't become proactive and address the issues of waste with actions. If you've read my columns over the years you've heard this message before. It was for once reassuring to hear that Mike endorses this thesis. Indeed, he believes that the label supplier will have to meet an environmental and sustainability scorecard, a la the Walmart approach. If a converter wants to supply major packaging companies, it will have to be compliant with environmental standards. This means we will have to eliminate waste.

We know that there is a sustainable alternative to landfilling spent liners. Either there is an internal recycling scheme that takes care of this stream of waste or (and this has always been my preference) the label supplier picks up the liner while delivering his next shipment of labels. The liner returns to the converter's operation and is then shipped to a local service center for consolidation to trailer load shipments. The spent liners are then used as feed stock to make desiliconized pulp.

The sustainable alternative to landfilling matrix and other forms of pressure sensitive by-product is to make energy. Without a doubt this application is viable. It is in most cases cost neutral, and in the USA the demand for it will increase because of new legislation in many states. Let's take a look at the changing landscape for energy and why the diversion of matrix from the landfill to energy applications makes good economic sense.
In many US states, legislation exists or is pending that mandates that the largest users of fossil fuel – utilities and affected electric service companies – must use a percentage of alternative energy by a certain time.

Indeed, there are now 24 states that have some form of legislation that forces utilities to make changes to the feed stocks they purchase to produce energy. If you follow Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decisions you'll learn that the changes that mandate the use of renewable energy are moving fast, very fast. For example, the state of Ohio has legislated that by 2024 all electric utilities must use 12.5 percent renewable energy. One half a percent must come from solar energy resources. The balance can come from any type of alternative energy. There is a year-by-year schedule with recommended benchmarks and "at least half of the annual renewable energy resources, including solar energy resources, shall be met through electricity generated by facilities in the state." This means you can't meet the mandate by buying renewable energy from a neighboring state. One half must be produced in Ohio. The utilities in Ohio must make changes.

The same kind of legislation has been mandated in Wisconsin. In that case 10 percent of utilities' feed stocks must come from renewable energy by 2015. This gives our industry in Ohio and Wisconsin and neighboring states an opportunity to divert waste from landfills into energy applications. Wow, I am so excited because this kind of legislation will encourage changes that I really didn't expect to see in my lifetime.

The PUC "O" (Ohio) has an addendum to its standard called "definitions." The addendum defines renewable energy. It can, and in my opinion should, include solar, wind, geothermal, and waste-to-energy (WTE). As controversial as WTE projects are, this alternative energy is by far the most economical and environmentally sensible of them all.

The USA is way behind other regions of the world in building WTE facilities. We have too many holes in which to dump garbage. I believe we only have about 80 WTE facilities across the country, but only in highly populated areas like northern New Jersey, Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and northern California.

There is one major player in WTE in the US: Covanta. It dominates the industry and controls tipping fees. Instead of a diverse playing field, the nimbys of America have created roadblocks for new players and allowed dominance by one company which keeps tipping fees for energy artificially high. The situation in New York City is a great example of the complexity of WTE. It is cheaper to ship four million tons of garbage (yes, part of that is matrix) to landfills in Virginia than to use the Covanta WTE facility in northern New Jersey. Forget the fact that WTE plants are more environmentally friendly for non-recyclables than landfilling. Embracing WTE reduces greenhouse gases and produces energy.

The driver in all of this is energy legislation. This legislation, now and in the future, will force communities to use WTE. Wind turbines and solar will create only a modest percentage of the mandated renewable energy supply. Waste-to-energy and derivative forms of WTE will be the only solution to meeting these goals.
There was an article in March in the Chicago Tribune on "green energy" generated by burning tires. The article talked about the Geneva Energy incinerator on the south side of Chicago that burns tires and is protected by the state of Illinois' definition of renewable energy, even though the company has a history of environmental and financial issues. (Everyone knows that Illinois is probably the only state where something like this can happen). I don't consider this to be green energy and I believe that Geneva Energy should be shut down until it meets all federal and state environmental requirements. By the way, Illinois has mandated that 25 percent of the energy generated by utilities must be renewable energy by 2025. I suppose Geneva would supply a percentage because it is renewable, regardless of whether it is green or not. Oh my goodness, what next? (Editor's note: The author is a resident of Illinois.)

There was also an article in the San Francisco Chronicle in April that talked about the "shifting fortunes of solar" energy. While solar is an excellent renewable fuel, it doesn't have the economic and environmental viability of waste-to-energy.

WTE is the most viable solution for the by-product generated by our industry. It is my belief that legislation for energy to replace coal and gas will force increased WTE facilities throughout America. The growth of WTE facilities has already started in Europe and will quickly hopscotch to North America during the next 10 years. It is the solution to disposal and solves a need for renewable energy.

The modern WTE facilities are clean and quiet. Filters and scrubbers capture dioxins and other pollutants. A recent article in the New York Times said, "Plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration."

The major issues for diverting matrix and other non-recyclable by-product from the landfill to WTE are packaging and logistics. It is so easy to landfill. Stick it in a box and haul it to a landfill. Out of sight and out of mind. What could be better? The problem is this is not a solution and is not sustainable. The change required by WTE challenges the generator to get by-product from point A to point B as economically as possible. This means baling, which means a capital investment for many companies.

Our by-product is high in energy value. It burns more efficiently than coal and generates less ash. Indeed, higher concentrations of filmic by-product give higher BTU values than coal. Therefore, matrix is a winner. It is an excellent feed stock for WTE or fuel pellets which can be fed easily and efficiently into coal fired boilers. If we make the capital investment today to package our by-product for efficient shipment and use, we may benefit tomorrow by increased demand for this kind of feed stock. I predict that some day, perhaps in a decade, our by-product may have value. Legislation will drive WTE which will need clean, efficient feed stocks. Instead of paying a tipping fee, if we have anticipated this increased demand by making the investment in packaging equipment, we may actually receive credit for this kind of feed stock.

My belief is that matrix, pressure sensitive by-product, and other non-intrusive non-recyclables will ultimately have value if a capital investment is made for appropriate packaging. Instead of sending 10,500 tons of trash per day from New York City to neighboring states, trash will be consumed in a local WTE solution.

Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says, "Incinerators are the devil." This couldn't be further from the truth. She would rather create a larger carbon footprint instead of reducing our dependence on fossil fuel with a safe, clean, environmental solution. Laura Haight is wrong. Diverting matrix into energy applications is practical, environmentally sound, and ultimately will generate revenue.

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.