Better waste management can help reduce greenhouse gases ... says science!

Columns - Waste Watch

Waste processing has advanced to create valuable fuel from nonrecyclable materials.

June 7, 2017

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), our nation’s industry consumed over 30 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy last year. That is the equivalent of more than 5 billion barrels of crude oil. Industry is the largest energy consuming sector and represents almost one-third of our energy appetite. That energy use resulted in the release of 1,443 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), says EIA. The largest emitters of CO2 are the electric power and transportation sectors at about one-third each.

The electric power sector is rapidly reducing its greenhouse gas footprint through the adoption of zero carbon technologies, such as wind and solar. But what zero carbon, or carbon neutral options does industry have? Not many, save biomass. And what and where are the economical sources of biomass? The municipal solid waste (MSW) stream is one, with more than 250 million tons of it going to landfills.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, there was great interest in using MSW as an industrial refuse-derived fuel (RDF). Unfortunately, the early process of shredding, ferrous removal and screening produced a fuel that was not very compatible with industrial boilers. Emissions from largely uncontrolled combustors were found to be unacceptable, so the industrial use of MSW largely faded away, being replaced by power generation plants knows as waste-to-energy or resource recovery facilities.

These facilities—the many remaining now greater than 20 years old—have served our local waste management needs very well. However, today’s low-cost electricity market has rendered them an uneconomic choice for new power generation capacity that can provide a reliable disposal channel.

While our society should reduce, reuse and recycle first, what are we to do with 50 percent of the waste stream that remains after those efforts? It’s still useful as fuel with its energy equivalent of almost 400 million barrels of oil or 100 million tons of coal. Our nation’s industry, cement kilns, refineries and paper mills consume more than 50 million tons of coal per year.

Over the years, technology has advanced in waste processing. The earlier generation of processing has morphed into high-tech operations that reliably can produce a waste-derived fuel to a specification that no longer needs to be considered a contaminated fuel.

The use of similar engineered fuels in industrial applications is widespread in the European Union. The EU has a classification system that establishes four grades of fuel depending upon the maximum level of contaminants that may be present in the fuel. Fuel buyers have knowledge of what they are buying and how it will react within their equipment.

While our society should reduce, reuse and recycle first, what are we to do with 50 percent of the waste stream that remains after those efforts?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has its Non-hazardous Secondary Materials (NHSM) Rule in place to assure fuel quality. While maybe not as sophisticated as the EU classification system, the EPA system puts fuel buyers at ease that using NHSM-compliant fuel will not subject them to the EPA commercial and industrial solid waste incinerator rules.

I am having a sense of déjà vu as I see European mixed waste processing technology providers setting subsidiaries and alliances to penetrate the U.S. market. A generation ago it was Deutsche-Babcock, Martin and Von Roll teamed with U.S.-based Ref-Fuel, Ogden and Wheelabrator. Tomorrow it might be Entsorga, Helector and Valoriza with whom?

The Renewable Energy from Waste Conference, Oct. 2 to 4 in Fort Myers, Florida, is a an event where you can find out.