Letters From The Earth

Solid Waste + Action = Energy

July 12, 2011

Until we use what we have plenty of, we will not come close to reaching our renewable energy goals.

Do any of you follow the website GreenBiz.com? I try to glance at it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the information can be overwhelming and, at times, confusing. For example, renewable energy. This is a subject of great interest to me, particularly since I believe that our by-product, pressure sensitive and flexible packaging by-product, is an excellent feedstock for us to use to make renewable energy. Renewable energy is a complex subject. It is not just about using our by-product as feedstock. If you go to GreenBiz.com you'll read about the manufacturing of biofuels from palm oil, soy oil, switch grass, salicornia, jatropha oil, and shells and husks that are generated from animal feed manufacturing. Holy moly, I want simplicity, not complexity. And, what about renewable energy from wood, solar, and wind? All of this is in Greenbiz.com. I suppose, at the end of the day, it's a lot easier to get a summary of information from this daily website than reading the entire explanation in Popular Mechanics or Popular Science or The Biomass Report. Isn't that what we're all about these days, the easy way out!

Indeed, renewable energy is a complex subject. In this column I want to focus on the latest waste-to-energy (WTE) activities that involve municipal solid waste (MSW). After all, this is where our industry by-product is going, unless you are among the small group of generators committed to zero landfill. Those folks have developed alternatives to landfill and should be applauded.

WTE uses MSW to produce electricity. This source of renewable energy is controversial, to say the least. I have written about it before. Because of the controversy, the last traditional WTE facility was built in 1996; that's 15 years ago. However, in the last several years we have seen expansions of traditional WTE facilities. In fact, some communities, regardless of the controversy and objections of environmental groups, are using new WTE technologies. These are "conversion" technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis. I've used information from Gershman, Brickner, and Bratton, one of our industry's most highly regarded solid waste consulting firms, to explain some of these developments.

I might add that the United States of America, where I live, still doesn't have a federal energy policy. In January, President Obama used his State of the Union address to stress the need for "reinventing the country's energy policy and for setting a goal of obtaining 80 percent of the nation's electricity from clean energy sources by 2035." The plan is a broad energy strategy with research, lots of grants and financial assistance, and, naturally, tax incentives. In addition, the plan calls for a ramp-up in renewable energy technology with $341 million in research and development of biofuels and biomass.

I think it will be years before we have a practical, moderate, incisive federal energy policy. However, little by little, even without an approved policy, we are seeing that financial assistance from the government and private investment is advancing waste conversion technologies. Most of the technologies use MSW as the primary feedstock to create electricity. Let's look at a couple of these projects.

Enerkem, a Canadian cellulosic ethanol producer, is spending $250 million in Pontotoc, MI, USA, to produce 10 million gallons of ethanol from 190,000 tons of MSW annually through a gasification and catalytic process. Gasification is the heating of MSW to produce a synthesis gas (syngas) which consists of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and a few other minor compounds. The heating value of syngas varies from 200 to 500 BTU per cubic foot. After cleaning and filtering, syngas can be used as energy for the production of other chemicals and compounds. (Pyrolysis systems, heating without oxygen, is focused on destroying waste, while a gasifier is designed to produce usable gas). The bottom line, and to be sure we are still in second and third generation technology, is that we are taking MSW and diverting it from a landfill and making a useful product. This is pretty neat and makes practical economic sense.

In Vero Beach, FL, USA, New Plant Energy is producing both ethanol and electricity from MSW. This project will go live in 2012 and will produce eight million gallons of bioethanol and six megawatts of renewable power. (Two megawatts will be used to power neighboring homes, by the way). In this project, the conversion process combines gasification and fermentation (shades of manufacturing polylactic acid, PLA). Organic waste combines with oxygen to produce syngas consisting of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The gas is cooled, cleaned and fed to naturally occurring bacteria. The bacteria converts the gas into cellulosic ethanol, which is then purified for use as a transportation fuel.

There's another project in Evansville, IN, USA that converts MSW, wood waste, agricultural and yard waste into ethanol and electricity. This facility will receive 2,000 tons per day of the above feed stocks.

Another project involving MSW is starting in Storey County, NV, USA. This is in the northern part of Nevada, near Reno, and will take MSW feed stocks to create syngas from a plasma enhanced gas melter.

In Los Angeles and another city in Florida are two more projects that use MSW and tries to create energy that will power homes. In the Florida project, pyrolysis is used to generate heat, which ignites waste with a plasma torch to produce syngas which is then combusted to produce steam and electricity. The Los Angeles project is still developmental and utilizes anaerobic digestion to convert MSW to biogas which is then converted to biomethane which is used to fuel county vehicles.

MSW is the primary feed stock for all of these conversion technologies. While in its infancy this source of energy must become the primary source of renewable energy. We will not begin to come close to meeting mandated renewable levels with solar and wind. We must use what we have plenty of: municipal solid waste. The new conversion technologies will eventually displace the most common WTE technology, mass burn waterwall combustion. Covanta and Wheelabrator are the two largest players in this business, and it is my belief that they will incorporate the emerging conversion technologies into their existing facilities. RDF – refuse derived fuel – facilities have been operating just as long as mass burn technology. With RDF, MSW is mechanically processed at the front end to produce a more homogenous and easy to burn fuel for specific boiler requirements. Between mass burn and RDF there are 86 modern WTE facilities in the US, coast to coast. However, we have no new facilities since 1996, as mentioned earlier. Obviously, we still don't have enough WTE facilities because of the amount of MSW continuing to go directly to landfills.

In summary, using MSW to create energy is a win/win for everyone. Along with our traditional methods of RFD and mass burn, the new conversion technologies will allow us to use increasing volumes of MSW to increase the amount of renewable energy that is available.
Our industry by-product is perfectly suited for this application. Creating energy with our by-product is an easy, efficient, and economically viable alternative to landfilling. The conversion of pressure sensitive and flexible packaging by-product into energy meets sustainability requirements and is compliant with the demands of the brand owners.

Just recently, in another GreenBiz press release, the organization As You Saw asked Procter & Gamble, General Mills, and others to take responsibility for post-consumer packaging. Indeed, I think it won't be too long before these same folks say to their label and flexible packaging suppliers that they want them to eliminate their by-product from MSW. "Find an alternative to landfilling," they will say. Since the alternatives are there, the solution is pretty simple. From my viewpoint, way up here, all it requires is action.

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.

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