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Zero Waste to Landfill: Where Does the United States Stand?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
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Source: Forester Media

Progress is being made in the US towards zero waste to landfill goal, but we have a long way to go.

The German Federal Environment Agency estimates that the energy generated by its 80 thermal plants saves some 9.75 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) annually by replacing fossil fuels like coal or oil.

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In the US, MSW generation has hovered around 250 million tons per year for the past decade. In recent years, about 35% has been recycled or composted and another 12% has been incinerated for energy recovery. As a nation, we are still landfilling more than half of the solid waste we create.

When it comes to its progress in achieving zero waste to landfills, the US is on a par with Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

In all due respect, despite all best intentions, these facts confirm that the goal of zero waste to landfills cannot be achieved through the recycling of finished products and composting alone.

Admittedly, by tonnage, the primary waste conversion technology in use in Europe and in Asia is now state-of-the-art incineration. Japan, however, is the world’s largest user of MSW gasification. It has more than 120 plants that employ gasification-related equipment from companies like JFE, Nippon Steel, Ebara, Mitsui, Kobelco, and Westinghouse Plasma. Only 2% of Japan’s MSW is being disposed of in landfills, a goal that was established out of necessity decades ago, due to their lack of available landfill space and the fact that the transport of MSW from one municipality to another is not allowed.

In less than 20 years, China has become a major player in waste-to-energy, constructing more than 100 WTE plants that process 17% of its MSW. The European and Asian experience compels regulators in North America to modify their definitions of recycling to include not only finished products, but the recovery and reuse of carbon at the molecular level. At a minimum, public jurisdictions should be allowed to obtain landfill diversion credit whenever MSW residuals are converted to syngas (composed primarily of hydrogen and carbon monoxide) and reconstituted into electricity, liquid energy, or biobased chemicals, from which a wide array of biobased products can be produced.

Such a policy would be consistent with California law, which defines recycling as “the process of collecting, sorting, cleansing, treating, and reconstituting materials that would otherwise become solid waste, and returning them to the economic mainstream in the form of raw material for new, reused, or reconstituted products, which meet the quality standards necessary to be used in the marketplace,” words which the state’s bureaucracy has steadfastly refused to put into effect.

A decade ago when the BioEnergy Producers Association was founded, it was widely anticipated that conversion technologies (CTs) would soon meaningfully reduce the nation’s dependence upon landfills and contribute to national security, energy independence, and a better environment.

Today, the promise of biotechnology has taken wing. The production of biofuels now extends beyond corn-based ethanol. Last year, POET-DSM, Quad County Corn Processors, Abengoa, and DuPont joined INEOS Bio (whose technology is capable of processing MSW) in commissioning commercial plants that produce cellulosic biofuels from agricultural residues, forest resources, and energy crops. Also, during the year, US biodiesel production reached 1.75 billion gallons, and technologies for the production of biobased chemicals moved forward rapidly.

However, the success stories in MSW were few. Only Canada’s Enerkem commissioned a commercial scale biorefinery that uses MSW residuals as a feedstock for the production of biofuels and chemicals. It will annually gasify 100,000 dry tonnes of post-recycled solid waste, initially to produce 10 million gallons of biomethanol, a chemical intermediate, and later cellulosic ethanol. It is part of an integrated waste management system for the City of Edmonton where 20% of the city’s waste is recycled, 40% is composted, and 30% is used to produce biofuels. The project has increased the city’s landfill diversion rate from 60% to 90%.

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