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Iowa City Exploring Waste Diversion

By Adam B Sullivan | August 12, 2013 |

As much as 80 percent of trash could be kept out of landfill

One person’s trash could be another person’s renewable energy source.

Iowa City is moving forward on plans that officials hope will divert most of the waste coming into the landfill. The city is accepting bids from outside firms to design a system to remove recyclables and potential energy sources, rather than stowing the trash at the landfill for the rest of eternity.

“What we’re looking to do is significantly increase the amount of recyclables taken out of the waste stream and looking for alternatives to landfilling for much of the remainder,” Iowa City Public Works Director Rick Fosse said.

Fiberight, a Maryland-based renewable energy company, approached Iowa City administrators about the waste-diversion opportunity more than a year ago. The company is spending more than $30 million to retrofit an old ethanol plant in Blairstown — about an hour northwest of Iowa City — to convert solid waste into ethanol and a fuel called biogas.

Fiberight estimates Iowa City could prevent as much as 80 percent of the material coming into the landfill from staying there indefinitely.

A waste audit conducted by the state in 2011 showed much of the material in the Iowa City Landfill could be disposed of elsewhere. More than 20 percent of the landfill material was recyclable paper, about one-quarter was organic waste such as yard clippings or leftover food, and many of the plastics there are recyclable, according to the report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

In addition to keeping more trash out of the landfill, Iowa City’s diversion program also could reduce the amount of potentially problematic waste taken there. For instance, some products emit hazardous gas as they decompose.

“One of the appealing things is the remaining waste that does go in will be more inert,” Fosse said. “Long term, we’ll have fewer concerns about gas production. Not only can we extend the life of our landfill, but we can reduce some of the maintenance costs.”

The technology the city is eyeing is so new that there aren’t many other communities in the country to look to for comparison, and with a brand new project comes the risk of failure.

“Is it cutting-edge or bleeding-edge?” Iowa City Council member Michelle Payne asked at a meeting last week.

But Fosse said any waste-diversion arrangement between the city and a waste-diversion contractor would include safeguards for the city in case the project flops.

“It’s a complicated process, and it’s not something we’ve taken on before,” Fosse said.

Fosse also stressed that the project still is relatively young and it’s not totally clear what Iowa City’s waste-diversion scheme might look like. The city is accepting bids for the project until the middle of next month and city staff plans to recommend a vendor to the City Council by the end of the year.

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