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Wastecon 2014: Zero waste to landfill takes more than recycling

By REW Staff | October 21, 2014 | RecyclingToday.Com

VALLEY VIEW, OH – Recycling and composting alone are not enough to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill in the United States. During a session titled “Energy (is) from Waste,” held at the 2014 Wastecon event, panelists discussed how increasing the percentage of waste headed to waste-to-energy processes can help improve landfill diversion to rates closer to that of the European Union.

Speaking on behalf of Energy Recovery Council, President Ted Michaels, Harvey Gershman, president of Gershman, Brickner and Bratton (GBB), Fairfax, Virginia, shared how policies in the U.S. have allowed most of the waste in the U.S. to go to the lowest cost disposal option.

A side-by-side comparison between the municipal solid waste (MSW) in the U.S. and European Union, showed how in the U.S. 28.9 percent is recycled and composted, 7.6 percent goes to waste-to-energy (WTE) plants and 63.5 percent of waste is landfilled. In the European Union, 42 percent is recycled, 24 percent goes to WTE and 34 percent is landfilled.

Even if recycling in the U.S. increased to 42 percent, 50 would still be going to a landfill, according to Gershman. The top eight countries in Europe for waste diversion (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway), average only 2 percent of waste going to landfill, a little more than 50 percent going to recycling and composting and a little less than 50 percent going to WTE on average. “This is almost zero waste to landfill. This is incredible,” said Gershman.

“How do we get from 64 percent landfill to 2 percent landfill?” he then asked. “By just increasing recycling, we are nowhere near this 2 percent number of the best European countries.”

Gershman concluded by saying, “We need both materials and energy. Unfortunately in the U.S. when you do the calculation, we end up on the negative side of the equation because we haven’t affected decisions on the social side with any kind of policy. We need to affect the circular activity that goes into our economy.”

James Warner, CEO of the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA) in Pennsylvania talked about how solid waste diversion numbers in Lancaster County are similar to that of the top countries in Europe. LCSWMA operates a transfer station, landfill and two waste-to-energy plants: one in Lancaster County and one it acquired in bordering Dauphin County in 2013.

As for the U.S. as a whole, he said, “We think the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency solid waste] hierarchy is not being abided by. We are a failing as an industry,” he said, adding, “We are not failing so much on the recycling. Where we are failing is in the energy recovery. We definitely need energy in this country and clean energy.”

He said sometimes people criticize waste to energy saying it might compete with recycling. He said statistics in Lancaster County show the opposite. The WTE facility opened in1991 to reduce the volume of waste in the community and extend the life of the landfill. The recycling rate has gone from 14 percent to about 43 percent in the last 20 years.

Warner said, “I can’t recall a decision we’ve ever made where we decided not to recycle something because we also operated waste to energy.” He only recalled one period during the 1990s when there was not a recycling market for newsprint. When that happened, he said, the authority chose to incinerate the material rather than landfill it.

“We believe waste to energy actually supplements recycling.” said Warner. LSCWMA also adds 3 percent to the county’s recycling rate of 43 percent because of the metals that are recovered after the combustion process.

According to Warner, the WTE plant provides 10-to-one size reduction and has generated enough electricity to power every home in the Lancaster County (with a population of about 500,000) for four years.

He said, “If we had done our recycling and not built waste to energy, our finite space in our landfill would have been full in August of 2001, and instead we are still operating that landfill and it is going to last until 2020.” In other words, he said he considered it a “a 19-year dividend on our landfill space.”

Lancaster County’s diversion rates are similar to that of Denmark, according to Warner. “This can be done in the United States when decisions are made to implement integrated systems,” he said.

Craig Stuart-Paul CEO of Fiberight, Catonsville, Maryland, discussed his company’s process for dealing with material recovery facility (MRF) residues. “There is a lot of waste out there and a lot of resource in that waste,” said Stuart-Paul. “In the United States we are throwing those resources in the ground and we are never seeing those resources again.”

He said Fiberight’s approach is to “make $103 per ton of waste we process.” He acknowledged, “That is a lot of money for a ton of trash.”

Getting to that amount, according to Stuart-Paul means finding a way to add significant value to the waste, mainly to the organics. “We are not looking at this feedstock as trash, we are looking at it as an industrial feedstock to an industrial process from which we can provide significant upgrading,” he explained.

Fiberight invested about $10 million in a 46,000-square-foot demonstration plant near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which now has about 5,000 hours of operating experience. The company has begun the expansion from demonstration to full commercial scale.

“By next year we will be running 325 tons per day,” said Stuart-Paul. Fiberight produces several different end products from waste. Stuart-Paul said Fiberight is the only waste company with an EPA-approved pathway from MSW to renewable biomass. The company uses hydrolysis to convert anything from diapers to pizza boxes to banana skins into high-value sugars. “By the end of next year we will have three solid years running a waste to bioproducts plant,” he said.

Stuart-Paul told attendees that Fiberight is part of an infrastructure not the entire infrastructure for waste. He showed one system which was a combined single-stream and dirty-MRF connected to a pulper. Soluble organics are separated from cellulosic organics and converted through enzymatic hydrolysis into sugars to ethanol which is integrated with anaerobic digestion.

“We are able to compress that with minimal cleanup into CNG,” Stuart-Paul added.

“These new technologies are emerging,” concluded Stuart Paul “In Europe MBT (mechanical biological treatment) plants are a fact of life. They work. They’re a very valuable part of the waste infrastructure in Europe. It is a technical world solution.”

Wastecon was held Aug. 24-26, 2014, in Dallas.

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