Times are changing for Renewable Energy from Waste

Columns - Critical Thinking

Many factors have contributed to a slow development in waste conversion technologies in the U.S.

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December 6, 2016
Harvey W. Gershman

This is my last column for Renewable Energy from Waste (REW) before it becomes Waste Today. More than four years have passed since my first column when I wrote about the role of renewable energy from waste hopefully becoming a bigger part of our nation’s renewable energy, fuel and chemical supply chain.

The needle for REW has not moved much since then. A few waste-to-energy facilities closed: Harford County, Maryland; North Broward County, Florida; and Red Wing, Minnesota, while one opened: Palm Beach County, Florida.

Four years ago, Gershman Brickner & Bratton counted 35 REW projects under development. Looking back now, we see several anaerobic digestion (AD) projects have become operational, including a large AD project in Perris, California, that CR&R recently began operating.

Enerkem in Edmonton; Ineos Indian River; and Alter NRG Tees Valley projects were the most notable waste conversion/gasification projects to begin construction back then. Only the Enerkem facility continues as the other two have either closed or stalled. Other facilities are advancing—Fiberight in Maine; Entsorga in West Virginia; and Fulcrum in Nevada.

So, what is holding back REW from becoming a larger part of the sustainable materials management policy in the U.S.? The primary antagonist for solid waste management sustainability is the availability of abundant and relatively inexpensive landfill capacity and some two-thirds of our waste going to landfills—a staggering more than 200 million tons per year.

The increasing distance between landfill sites and population centers may alter the cost of landfilling, but the environmental impact of land disposal continues despite regulatory efforts. Here are three strategies that can reverse this:

  • support development of resource recovery parks;
  • adoption of a national sustainable infrastructure development fund; and
  • banning commodities with high recovery potential from landfills.

We need to recognize that the waste stream is changing. It has become lighter and less recyclable due to changes in packaging that offer significant carbon reduction benefits. Additionally, newspapers and the use of printing paper have markedly decreased as they have been replaced by smart phones and laptops for instant news. The bottom line for recycling is less tons to source separate and sell.

So, what should we do with what is left over after we’ve recycled to the maximum practical extent? The residual material left has significant energy value. In the European Union, this refuse-derived or engineered fuel is used in coal-fired boilers, small dedicated facilities built for its use, as well as in cement kilns, helping many countries achieve almost zero waste to landfills.

National policy changes to incentivize the use of residual fuels could allow this to happen in the U.S., too. That would be smarter solid waste management that could lead to a more sustainable system for our future.

Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc. (GBB), www.gbbinc.com, is an international solid waste management consulting firm based in Fairfax, Virginia, that helps public and private sector organizations craft practical, customized and technically sound solutions for complex solid waste management challenges.

Harvey Gershman is president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., solid waste management consultants, hgershman@gbbinc.com.