On April 14, 2011 members of the environmental community including the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists sent a letter to Resources Secretary John Laird opposing CalRecyle’s certification (for RPS credits) of Plasco Energy’s conversion technology project in Salinas Valley, California. The letter, sitting PRC Section 40117’s scientifically incorrect definition of “gasification”[1] argues that the certification should not have been given because the gasification technology (with its proposed conversion of solid waste to electricity) would involve combustion (which it did not)[2], not be able to meet the criterion of “zero emissions” (which no other energy generating technology in California is held to), and would ultimately hurt recycling (which CTs do not do)[3]. What the letter fails to mention is that the Plasco project would: created domestic green renewable energy, reduce both GHG and air emissions, and reduce dependence on landfills.

The arguments refuting these assertions are set out in our previous blogs and can be reviewed on our website (environmentalproblemsolving.com/). What is essential to consider, however, is that both the Sierra Club and UCS have, on the record, come out in favor of CTs (the Club in favor of both CT generated biofuels  and electricity, UCS in favor of CT generated biofuels) while opposing the Plasco project based on arguments condemning conversion technologies.

In 2009 the Sierra Club along with the WorldWatch Institute published a White Paper  (Smart Choices for Biofuels) wherein they  support the development of CT produced biofuels and electricity.  In pointing out that farmed feedstock for biofuels create GHGs, air emissions, threaten land conservation, and create water pollution the organizations state:

“Second generation biofuels bring advances in processing…For biodiesel, newer technologies abandon the reliance on natural oil feedstocks, allowing for larger-scale production, greater use of industrial and urban wastes, and the creation of synthetic fuels from a wider range of biomass…In the thermochemical platform, heat, pressure, chemical catalysts, and water are used to break down biomass in much the same way that petroleum is refined.  Thermochemical technologies include gasification, fast pyrolysis, and hydrothermic processing.  These technologies can be used to convert almost any kind of biomass into fuel…giving them a potential advantage over biochemical technologies that rely on developing specific enzymes to break down specific plant matter (emphasis added)[4].”

 “Converting biomass into heat or electricity instead of transportation fuel is a far more efficient use of this renewable resource” (emphasis added).[5]

Converting biomass into electricity is precisely the position the Sierra Club opposed in both its letter to Resources Secretary John Laird (and its opposition to AB 222)[6].

In its report The Billion Gallon Challenge published in 2009, UCS sitting a gasification project to biofuels as a positive role model for biofuel development stated:

“Waste products have been identified as sources of renewable fuels that dramatically reduce global warming emissions without displacing forests or food production…Fulcrum Bioenergy a Pleasanton, CA company is planning to build one[7] of the first facilities to convert municipal solid waste into fuel at an industrial scale (more than 10 million gallons a year) at a site outside Reno, NV.  Fulcurm uses gasification, which breaks down cellulosic biomass into carbon monoxide and hydrogen which are subsequently converted into ethanol …It is expected that these approaches will be optimized to handle the variable nature of waste as a feedstock, and tat the projects will have the capacity to produce clean fuel while reducing landfill requirements.  And because the garbage tends to be where the people are, the fuel can be produced close to consumers, thereby saving on transportation costs and associated emissions…Industry estimates put the total potential liquid-fuel production derivable from this resource at 10 billion to 21 billion gallons per year.”[8]

This is the exact argument made by CT proponents, including Plasco, in California.  This is also the position UCS (and the Sierra Club) argued against in opposing CalRecycle’s certification of Plasco’s gasification project in SalinasValley. Indeed, one might ask: if Plasco using the same gasification technology had proposed waste to biofuels would UCS have opposed the project?

This inconsistency suggests splits in positions within the respective organizations’ policy staffs with some favoring CTs as an evolutionary technology capable of not only reducing landfill usage, and preserving natural resources while in the process creating domestic renewable energy (free from dependence on fossil fuels domestic and foreign); with others deeply concerned that CTs will literally gobble up waste materials which could otherwise be recycled (which they will not)[9]. Perhaps, in our overly specialized world, this kind of inconsistency was inevitable. Or, perhaps it simply shows that understanding CTs is a very complicated business easily leading to contradictions. The good news however, is that the Brown Administration has now given us the opportunity to resolve the dichotomy and come together on a coherent CT policy, for California, based on the creation of a “technology-neutral, feedstock based standard” for RPS eligibility.

On June 1, 2012 the Governor’s Office sent a letter to the Plasco Energy Group which stated:

“[W]e fully support CalRecycle’s efforts to develop alterative policies regarding waste to energy in California, including developing a technology-neutral, feedstock-based performance standard that could eventually be used in place of the definition of gasification for determining RPS eligibility.”

This kind of invitation is clearly a call to all of the stakeholders involved in the CT debate in California to come together and finally resolve how to integrate these technologies, which have been working successfully in Asia and Europe for more than twenty years, into the state’s environmental economy. As pointed out by the Sierra club, the World Watch Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists these technologies: reduce GHG emissions, reduce air pollution, reduce water pollution, promote land conservation, and reduce our dependence on landfills.

Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises

Bob Sulnick & Gary Petersen 


[1] PRC Section 40117 defines pyrolysis not gasification.

[2] Conversion technologies are by definition “non-combustion” technologies.  In converting the syngas produced through the conversion process to electricity the gas is run through a generator identical to the process used to convert natural gas to electricity.

[3] Conversion technologies have been well established in Europe and Asia for more than 20 years, and have been an integral part of meeting their recycling mandates, landfill phase-out mandates and greenhouse gas reductions. See, University of California Riverside, “Performance and Environmental Impact Evaluation of Alternative Waste Conversion Technologies in California” (2004); peer reviewed, RTI International, Life Cycle and Market Impact Assessment of Non-combustion Waste Conversion Technologies. Moreover, the nations that recover the greatest amount of energy from solid wastes ae also the nations with the highest recycling rates.

[4] Smart Choices for Biofuels, Sierra Club, WorldWatch Institute, January 2009 at p 7.

[5] Ibid. at p 9.

[6] AB 222 was introduced into the California Legislature in 2010. The bill would have corrected the definition of “gasification” presently in PRC Section 40117. The bill did not pass out of the Legislature.

[7] In addition to the Fulcrum project, Covanta Energy Corporation has built a gasification project in Tulsa, Oklahoma, processing 350 TPD of post recycled municipal solid waste, for energy, for the past 10 months as well as Ineos/ New Planet BioEnergy’s gasification conversion technology operating in Vero Beach, Florida processing 400 TPD of wood waste and green waste to ethanol.

[8] The Billion Gallon Challenge, Jeremy Martin, June 2010 at p 37.

[9] Conversion technology efficiencies require homogenous feedstocks, thereby increasing recycling; they should be viewed as complimentary to recycling. Not all solid waste currently disposed can be recycled or composted. Contaminated organic materials, higher number plastics, and other materials, which cannot be recycled or processed in an economically feasible way are ideal feedstock for conversion technologies. Inorganic materials including glass, metals, and aggregate can reduce the efficiency of conversion technology operations; they have no value for conversion technologies thereby creating an incentive to separate and recover those materials for recycling prior to the conversion process. According to the “New and Emerging Technologies” study prepared  by the CIWMB (now CalRecycle) for the legislature, certain materials such as glass and metals can reduce the efficiency of conversion technology operations: “There is a projected net positive impact on glass, metal, and plastic recycling…using mixed solid waste as feedstock, preprocessing results in removal of 7 to 8 percent of feedstock for recycling at gasification facilities and 12 to 13 percent of feedstock for recycling at acid hydrolysis facilities.  This increase in recycling is related to conversion technology preprocessing operations”.  California Integrated Waste Management Board, New and Emerging Conversion Technologies Report to the Legislature (2007) at pp 74-75. 

The following is a response to the article post by the Sacramento Bee and can be found here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/06/14/4560750/jerry-brown-administration-to.html

Environmental Problem Solving Enterprise response:

Governor Brown should be commended for taking the position to both support legislation allowing Plasco Energy to qualify as eligible forCalifornia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) along with supporting the development of a technology-neutral standard to determine whether future conversion technology (CT) projects qualify for the RPS credits.

The debate, framed by two letters from CalRecycle (the first certifying the Pasco project as RPS eligible, the second rescinding the certification), is not about the environmental attributes of CTs but about whether thermal developments in California should be eligible for RPS renewable energy credits thereby adding there profitability. The environmental qualifications of CTs will be judged by the local and state permitting processes which assess the technologies from well established environmental standards relating to air and water.

Indeed, the verifiable facts about CTs include: they are not mass burn incinerators, they are thermal processes; they increase recycling rates; when compared to landfills they reduce both GHG and air emissions; they have been successfully operating around the world for over 20 years; they create new green jobs; they create a domestic supply of renewable non fossil-fuel energy in the from both biofuels and electricity by processing trash, considered a renewable fuel by both California and U.S. EPA; and they could relieve the pressure of landfill closings faced by jurisdictions throughout California.

What the Governor’s Office did was to create a context whereby his Administration, the legislature and stakeholders can come together and resolve the current debate over thermal CT development in our state. The statute (PRC 40117) relied upon by both the CalRecycle certification and de-certification letters, of the Plasco project, and which governs whether a CT project is RPS eligible incorrectly and unscientifically defines “gasification” thereby creating both confusion and potential liability forCalifornia.  The statute actually defines pyrolysis a non- gasification process.  Certifications based on a non-scientific definition create confusion and potential litigation.

 In addition to signaling its support for legislation during the current session to allow Plasco’s project to proceed as RPS eligible, the letter also voices its support for the development of a technology-neutral standard which can be used in place of the scientifically in accurate definition set out in PRC Section 40117.

 This should be used as an opportunity not to criticize the Administration but to engage with it in the process of rationally discussing the benefits of conversion technologies and how best to integrate them into California’s needs for renewable energy, green jobs and waste management techniques capable of reducing reliance on landfills.

 In order to fully understand the importance of conversion technologies (CTs) it is essential to understand the facts.  CT’s  are a domestic source of renewable energy which can be converted into both biofuels, and electricity free from dependence on foreign oil, fossil fuels, and transmission lines not in proximity to the grid.

U.S.EPA and the State of California, among many other States that have renewable energy programs, have all classified municipal solid waste as renewable.  The issue of whether municipal solid waste counts as a source of renewable energy was settled upon final clarification of the USEPA rules published in the Federal Register (Feb 4,2010, RFS2), the biogenic portion of post-recycled MSW qualify as “renewable biomass” for the purpose of meeting the federal mandate for the production of advanced biofuels.  Also see, Executive Order (October  5, 2009): “renewable energy means energy produced by solar, wind, biomass,  landfill gas, ocean…geothermal, municipal solid waste, or new hydroelectric generation…”[1]

The importance of this classification has extraordinary societal ramifications: garbage is finally recognized as a renewable i.e., endless source of potential green energy, garbage rather than going to a landfill can be used to create both biofuels and electricity. Modern societies with established waste management practices can begin to create their own domestic, distributed renewable energy thereby reducing both dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels as well as institutionalizing all of the environmental benefits which come with CT produced energy[2].

Energy consumption is without a doubt one of, if not the most, pressing issues of our time. With the advent of “fracking”[3] the debate over peak oil production has taken a turn [4]. Whereas pre oil shale drilling there was a consensus the world is rapidly running out of oil. ( In 2000, global production was 76 million barrels per day (MBD).  By 2020, demand is forecast to reach 112 MBD, an increase of 47%.) In 2012 however, the oil and gas industry is advocating a new fossil fuel energy boom lasting yet another 100 years. In any event, “fracking” is not a panacea to our energy needs (and demands).

The environmental impacts of fracking include: groundwater contamination with methane and fracking chemicals; surface water pollution; air pollution [5]; and methane leaks which contribute to and exacerbate climate change.  Indeed, there is even some evidence that fracking induces earthquakes [6].  In the wake of this mounting “evidence”France banned fracking in 2011. Since then South Africa, Bulgaria, U.K. Quebec and Australia have also banned fracking. Recently, New Jersey imposed a one-year ban on fracking and bans have been adopted in Pittsburgh and in some New York communities.

All of this is not to say that fracking will be banned, in all probability due to economic pressures, energy demands, and the entrenchment of our fossil fuel infrastructure it will proceed. What will also proceed is an unsustainable world wide demand for energy, climate change, and fossil fuel air and water pollution requiring us to develop alternative forms of renewable energy including conversion technology produced biofuels and electricity.

The United Stases with 5% of the world’s population consumes 24% of the world’s energy. Irrespective of fracking, with current demands exacerbated by growing fossil fuel economies in Chinaand India, fossil energy will become an increasingly unstable source within the next 50 years[7].

 The increased competition for oil between theUnited States,China and India will heighten pressures and tensions which presently characterize dependence on foreign oil. In the past ten years China has acquired oil investments in upstream projects in Burma, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Ecuador, Peru, Yemen, Oman, Azerbaijan, Canada and Australia. India, like China, has increased its energy diplomacy with states in the South Asia region; as well as in Central Asia,Russiaand the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. It has invested in gas fields in Vietnam, Algeria, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Venezuela, Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen and Africa. Indeed, India reached agreement in principle withIranto purchase a total of 5 million tons per year of liquid natural gas (LNG) for 25 years beginning in 2009.  Pipelines involving Iran are also being planned.

Given the current instability in foreign oil producing Nations world wide this competition for oil requires the United States to aggressively institute, a sustained energy conservation and renewable energy policy which includes, and incentives, all forms of renewable energy including conversion technologies.[8]

The energy benefits of conversion technologies, which are different kinds of technologies than incinerators,[9]are considerable.  They include: fuels[10] and electricity[11] from a renewable supply of waste that would otherwise be landfilled;[12] renewable energy that is firm power[13]; a large net energy savings from CTs as compared to alternative waste management scenarios ranging from two times lower in net energy consumption when compared to the Waste to Energy (WTE) scenario to 11 times lower than landfilling without energy recovery scenarios[14];  electrical energy produced by gasification and acid hydrolysis offset electrical energy produced (from fossil fuels) in the utility sector; and materials recovered from CT preprocessing steps and sent for recycling offset the extraction of virgin resources and production of virgin materials. (Also, CTs, when compared to landfills, significantly reduce both GHG and air emissions[15]).

It is obvious that renewable energy in the U.S .is developing far to slowly. This is unfortunate. It is equally unfortunate that resistance exists to including conversion technologies in the suite of renewable energy technologies which can lead to energy independence for theUnited States.

This, of course, is a topic for another blog.

Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises

Bob Sulnick andGary Petersen


[1] Projections show there would be a large net energy savings from CTs as compared to alternative waste management scenarios ranging from two times lower in net energy consumption when compared to the Waste to Energy (WTE) scenario to 11 times lower than landfilling without energy recovery scenarios. [2] Conversion technologies, compared to landfills, significantly reduce both GHG and air emissions. Because CT facility are located near or co-located with existing waste management infrastructure they reduce significantly diesel truck trips to outlying landfills. [3] Hydraulic fracturing, or “racking” enables the extraction of oil and gas from deeply embedded ancient shale zones, inaccessible until recently; it wasn’t until the 2000’s that the practice of high volume slick water horizontal fracturing was perfected and economically viable.  [4] In 2008 the published position on oil production was that additions to proven reserves have virtually stopped and it is clear that pumping at present rates is unsustainable. Estimates of the date of “peak global production” vary with some experts saying that it has already occurred (New Scientist Magazine placed peak year production in 2004). [5] USEPA recently released new air quality standards for fracking and is conducting studies in fracking impacted regions of the U.S. [6] A US Geological Survey (USGS) team has found that a sharp jump in earthquakes in the Midwest appears to be linked to oil and natural gas drilling. A USGS report issued in August 2011 reported that shortly after hydraulic fracking began Oklahoma experienced more than 50 small earthquakes;  most occurring within 24 hours after fracking operations had ended. [7] In 2003, China replaced Japan as the world’s second largest petroleum consumer.  According to data published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in early 2005, China consumes 6.4 million barrels per day (b/d), or about one-third the level of the U.S. The China of 25 years ago was largely energy self-sufficient. Prior to 1993, China was a net exporter of petroleum. China now imports 40% of its oil needs, approximately 3 million barrels per day. India has not made any major new domestic oil discoveries since the mid-1970s.  In 1990 Indian domestic supply met almost 60% of oil demand; whereas the country now imports 65% of its oil. According to the IEA, domestic production has stagnated in recent years while overall demand for oil doubled since 1990 to 2.4 MBD in 2003 and is expected to double again by 2030.  Total net oil imports for India were about 1.6 MBD in 2003.  By comparison, the United States comprised 27% of the total increase in global demand for oil between 2003 and 2004, China 36%; and India 4%. According to the IEA, overall demand for energy in China and India is projected to double by 2030, with U.S. demand growing by 35-50%. [8] The U.S. cannot, in the near future, reach energy independence just relying on: solar, wind, geothermal and small hydro electric sources. (UCS’ Billion Gallon Challenge and USEPA ) While solar, wind and geothermal are obviously forms of renewable energy which should be supported and incentivized they do not have the kind of infrastructure in place to ensure their viability. Currently there are environmental and economic debates going on regarding the impacts and costs of developing transmission lines from outlying areas to the grid.  In California, for example, BrightSource Energy is attempting to build a solar energy field in the Mojave Desert. The Sierra Club opposes the field due to environmental concerns about the desert tortoise and ecosystem, and the State will not allow the utilities to pass on the costs of building the transmission lines to rate payers.  [9] Incineration (or “transformation”) is literally the burning (combustion) of organic substances contained in waste materials in an oxygen-rich environment where the waste material combusts and produces heat and carbon dioxide, along with a variety of other pollutants including dioxins, furans, NOx and SOx. Conversion Technologies (gasification/pyrolysis), unlike incinerators, are non-combustion thermal, chemical, mechanical, and biological processes that are capable of converting post-recycled residual MSW into useful products and chemicals, green fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, and clean renewable energy. CTs operate either without oxygen (pyrolysis) or with very little oxygen (gasification). [10] Fuels (and chemicals) are produced from the synthesis gas derived from gasification and pyrolysis of feedstocks: storable gas, liquid and chemicals.  The secondary processing of synthesis gas can produce a range of liquid fuels (and chemicals) including methanol, dimethyl ether (DME), Fischer-Tropsch diesel fuel, hydrogen, ethanol, ethylene or substitute natural gas. (see, CIWMB, “New and Emerging Conversion Technologies” (2007) pp39-41. For example, Riceland Foods, Inc.Stuttgart, Arkansas gasifies 600 tons-per-day of rice hulls to produce a substitute natural gas, which in turn, fuels the production of 150,000 pph of steam and 12.8 MW of electricity. [11] Thermochemical conversion technology facilities that generate electricity are basically a combination materials recovery facility processing center and electrical generating facility that utilizes solid waste as the primary fuel instead of natural gas, oil, and/or coal to produce energy.  The “refinery” produces the fuel, and the “utility’ portion generates the electrical energy. [12] In 1990 the California Integrated Waste Management Board (now CalRecycle) reported that as of that date one-half of California counties had less than 15 years of landfill space remaining. Southern California’s largest landfill (Puente Hills) is closing in 2013. There are now 36 million Californians each of which leaves a legacy of 44 million tons of garbage annually.  The state is expected to add an additional 10 million people by 2020. [13] Renewable energy generated from solar and from wind technologies are not “firm power” because the power cannot be generated on a 24-hour basis.  The generation of energy from the conversion of solid waste is the generation of firm power at localized facilities consistent with a distributed power generation approach.  [14] Supra. Note 4, CIWMB, “New and Emerging Conversion technologies (2007). [15] The bacterial decomposition of landfilled material produces significant quantities of landfill gas.  The methane emissions from landfills are particularly important, since methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  Landfills represent the second largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions.  By contrast, CTs are designed to produce a fuel gas or synthesis gas that may contain methane which is not emitted into the atmosphere; thermal facilities are designed for 100 percent capture of the produced gas, including methane.

 

Interested in finding out the facts about Conversion Technologies? Follow the links below to our fact sheet which help you understand how CT’s will help increase recycling rates, produce renewable energy, and divert trash from landfills.

Fact Sheet 1: Conversion Technologies Manage Waste That Would Otherwise Go To Landfills

Fact Sheet 2: Conversion Technologies are not Incinerators

Fact Sheet 3: Conversion Technologies Complement Recycling

Fact Sheet 4: Conversion Technologies Produce Green Energy

Fact Sheet 5: Conversion Technologies Reduce Greenhouse Gases and Air Pollution

Fact Sheet 6: Reliable and Operating Around the World

Fact Sheet 7: Why Clarity is Needed in California Regulations Regarding Conversion Technologies

Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises

http://www.environmentalproblemsolving.com/

Bob Sulnick  & Gary Petersen

Some environmental organizations[1] in California have opposed the development of conversion technologies (CTs) on the grounds that their development would hurt recycling.  This makes no sense: conversion technologies developed in California would only handle post-MRF (Materials Recovery Facility)[2] waste material that would otherwise be disposed in landfills, not separated recyclables; CTs, world-wide, increase recycling; and the commercial recycling community supports the development of CTs in California.

California state government and all of the stake holders advocating for the development of CTs in the state are committed to a “MRF First” policy precisely to protect California’s recycling success and industries.  InCalifornia, prior to thermal conversion, recyclables would be removed from the conversion process. In other words, conversion technologies developed inCalifornia would only handle post-MRF waste material that would otherwise be disposed in landfills, not separated recyclables.

In addition to this “MRF First” policy support for recycling, in the context of CT development, it is important to understand that CTs require “up-front” sorting and/or preprocessing of post MRF residuals something  which would necessarily extract recyclable materials prior to thermal conversion.[3]

Another fact that anti-CT advocates ignore is that nations recovering the greatest amount of energy from solid wastes are also the nations with the highest recycling rates[4].

The most telling fact, however,  that should disarm the myth that CTs would hurt recycling is the fact that California commercial recycling companies, which make their living recycling, support CT development.

The California Refuse Recycling Council represents most of the recyclers inCalifornia. On the record the Association stated:

“It is conservatively estimated that the solid waste industry has invested several hundreds of millions of dollars in recycling program and facility development…Not surprisingly, CRRC members view with caution any legislation, regulation, or administrative determination that they conclude may adversely impact waste diversion and recycling efforts, for they have the most to lose…The CRRC and its members are advocates of conversion technologies as landfill alternatives…As the companies that actually collect and mange the state’s solid waste, we recognize that conversion technologies must become a critical part of the overall solid waste management system; these facilities will receive residual waste that is left over after the material has been thoroughly sorted at our facilities and is generally destined for landfill.  Facilities such as these will allow this material to be converted into renewable energy and other beneficial products as a viable alternative to burying in a landfill.”[5]

The fact is that the traditional approach of reduce, recycle and reuse alone will not, indeed, cannot solve California’s and the Nation’s solid waste/trash problems. Even with a claimed recycling rate of 58 percent (12 percent of which is green waste placed in landfills for daily cover), Californiadisposes between 35.5 and 43 million tons of post-MRF residuals annually[6]. And, the state’s population is expected to grow by 10 million over the next 25 years adding another 800 million tons of post recycled materials to landfills. This, without conversion technologies, is not a sustainable scenario.

When we talk about conversion technologies we are talking about evolution and “social change”.  We have instituted recycling into the fabric of the modern world; it works as far as it goes.  It should be supported and as California’s recent mandatory commercial recycling law, AB 341 (Chesboro), does expanded.[7]  It cannot, however, in a rapidly overpopulating world running out of landfill space[8] be viewed as a panacea. In the 21st Century technologies like CTs have an essential role to fulfill. Things evolve. New technologies like CTs, which provide renewable energy and new green jobs, should be embraced not discouraged.

Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises

Bob Sulnick  Gary Petersen


[1] The Community Environmental Council and Energy Independence Now support CT development inCalifornia. Paradoxically, both the Sierra Club and NRDC which have opposed CTs inCalifornia support CT produced biofuels nationally. World Watch, which as not opposed CTs inCalifornia, also supports CT produced biofuels.

[2] Jurisdictions which recycle have their recyclables taken to a MRF where the recyclables are removed from the wastestream and recycled into useful products. It is only the residuals from this MRF process which would be used by CTs to produce renewable energy.

[3] Conversion technology efficiencies require homogenous feedstocks, thereby increasing recycling; they should be viewed as complimentary to recycling. Not all solid waste currently disposed can be recycled or composted. Contaminated organic materials, higher number plastics, and other materials, which cannot be recycled or processed in an economically feasible way are ideal feedstock for conversion technologies. Inorganic materials including glass, metals, and aggregate can reduce the efficiency of conversion technology operations; they have no value for conversion technologies thereby creating an incentive to separate and recover those materials for recycling prior to the conversion process. According to the “New and Emerging Technologies” study prepared  by the CIWMB (now CalRecycle) for the legislature, certain materials such as glass and metals can reduce the efficiency of conversion technology operations: “There is a projected net positive impact on glass, metal, and plastic recycling…using mixed solid waste as feedstock, preprocessing results in removal of 7 to 8 percent of feedstock for recycling at gasification facilities and 12 to 13 percent of feedstock for recycling at acid hydrolysis facilities.  This increase in recycling is related to conversion technology preprocessing operations”. California Integrated Waste Management Board, New and Emerging Conversion Technologies Report to the Legislature (2007) at pp 74-75.

[4] Brandes, Power Point, Chief Energy Recovery Branch, Office of Resource Conservation andRecovery,U.S. EPA (2009) at P 9. Conversion technologies are not experimental; they are operating in 28 countries including:Australia, Europe,Japan,South Korea,South Africa and theUnited States. Conversion technologies have been well established in Europe andAsia for more than 20 years, and have been an integral part of meeting their recycling mandates, landfill phase-out mandates and greenhouse gas reductions. See,University ofCalifornia Riverside, “Performance and Environmental Impact Evaluation of Alternative Waste Conversion Technologies inCalifornia” (2004); peer reviewed, RTI International, Life Cycle and Market Impact Assessment of Non-combustion Waste Conversion Technologies.

Conversion technologies have been well established in Europe andAsiafor more than 20 years, and have been an integral part of meeting their recycling mandates, landfill phase-out mandates and greenhouse gas reductions. See,UniversityofCalifornia Riverside, “Performance and Environmental Impact Evaluation of Alternative Waste Conversion Technologies inCalifornia” (2004); peer reviewed, RTI International, Life Cycle and Market Impact Assessment of Non-combustion Waste Conversion Technologies.

[5] Letter to Secretary John Laird, June 7, 2011.

[6] It is unrealistic to believe that the post-recycled fraction of municipal solid waste that is being placed inCalifornia’s landfills can be significantly reduced through source reduction, traditional recycling and composting alone. In 1989, the state was landfilling 40 million tons of municipal waste per year.  In 2008, even with a claimed recycling rate of 58 percent,California was landfilling between 35.5 and 43 million tons of MSW. The state’s population is expected to grow by some 10 million people over the next 25 years adding another 800 million tons of post recycled material to landfills. “There is widespread agreement that the continued land disposal of waste in not a viable option in the state.”University ofCalifornia Riverside, Evaluation of Emissions from Thermal Conversion Technologies Processing Municipal Solid Waste and Biomass (2009); also see California Senate EQ staff evaluation of policy concerns over AB 222: “It is a fact that the greatest majority of all materials that are financially feasible for recycling are currently being removed from the waste stream.  [Even including commercial and multi-family recycling], [i]t would be functionally and economically impossible to achieve “zero waste” by relying on  the existing waste hierarchy in California, and the state would end up landfilling another billion or so tons of post-recycled municipal waste …”

[7] AB 341 (Chesboro) expands mandatory recycling to businesses. “Business” means any commercial or public entity that generates four cubic yards or more of commercial solid waste per week, including but not limited to, a firm, partnership, proprietorship, joint-stock company, corporation, or association that is organized as a for-profit or non-profit entity, strip mall (e.g. property complex containing two or more commercial entities), industrial facility, school, school district, California State University, community colleges, University of California, special district or a federal, state, local, regional agency or facility. For purposes of this Chapter, “business” also includes a multi-family residential dwelling of five units or more regardless of the amount of commercial solid waste generated. The regulation does not apply to single-family dwellings, multi-family dwellings of four or fewer units, or those businesses that generate less than four cubic yards of commercial solid waste per week. Local jurisdictions can also establish other specific exemptions.

[8]Puente Hills,California’s largest land fill will close in 2013 presenting theCounty ofLos Angeles with the impossible dilemma. Puente Hills currently receives one-third of the County’s waste.  After the closing, without alternatives like conversion technologies, the County will have to diesel truck this waste 400 miles roundtrip to alternative landfills  adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and using more non-renewable fossil fuel in the process.

The United States is undeniably in the midst of a complicated energy crisis.  A crisis complete with political factions suggesting that we can “drill” our way out of our energy problems versus the need to establish an energy policy based upon renewable energy and conservation.

Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises (EPS) believes that developing renewable energy, coupled with conservation measures including raising corporate average fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles to 55 MPG by 2025, is the sane appropriate approach to solving our energy issues. Even with recent developments of extreme deep well drilling, like in the Pre-Salt reservoirs off the central coast of Brazil, oil shale development in the Bakken formation in North Dakota, and tight-oil production (LTO) techniques, oil energy remains at best problematic. These “new” extreme techniques are fraught with environmental and human health risks[1], they will not wean us off our dependence on foreign oil, and they cannot continue indefinitely. The fact is these “new” techniques were developed because it was clear that by using traditional drilling methods the world was rapidly running out of oil (as evidenced by declining production in Russia, Iran and Kuwait).

In 2000 global production was 76 Million Barrels per Day (MBD).  By 2020, demand is forecast to reach 112 MBD, an increase of 47%. Oil shale and new extreme techniques aside, it is clear that pumping/fracking/developing oil sands at present rates is unsustainable. In any event, with current demands exacerbated by growing and competing fossil fuel economies in China, India and other developing nations oil will become an even more unstable source of energy within the next 50 years[2].

While we agree that conservation plus increased solar, wind and geothermal energy are part of any successful energy plan there is one source of domestic renewable energy which is grossly overlooked in the United States- conversion technology (CT) produced biofuels and electricity. CTs are already established and functioning world wide. They have been operating successfully and reliably in Europe and Asia for the past twenty years. [3]Yet, they are lacking in the U.S.

CTs, after removing recyclables from the waste stream, convert the waste which cannot be recycled and would otherwise be sent to landfills into renewable distributed energy. This energy can take the form of green fuels like ethanol and biodiesel and/or electricity.  They do this through non-combustion thermal, mechanical, and biological processes. CTs do not burn waste. Unequivocally, they are not incinerators. Incineration (or “transformation”) is literally the burning (combustion) of organic substances contained in waste materials in an oxygen-rich environment where the waste material combusts and produces heat and carbon dioxide, along with a variety of other pollutants including dioxins, furans, NOx and SOx. This is called “mass burn” and would include waste materials that could otherwise be recycled.  Conversion technologies (gasification/pyrolysis/anaerobic digestion), unlike incinerators, are non-combustion thermal, mechanical, and biological processes that convert post recycled residuals (materials that would otherwise be sent to landfills) into green fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, and electricity. Yet, opposition to CTs in the United States routinely and incorrectly characterizes them as incinerators. It is essential that this characterization be understood as an unscientific political maneuver designed to thwart CT development and ironically and incidentally the renewable energy and green jobs that go with their development.

The opposition to CT development which routinely characterizes them as incinerators ironically comes from the environmental community, and not surprisingly the owners and operators of landfills. Landfill opposition while straight forward (they are a source of large amounts of money for their owners and operators) is disappointing. It would be preferable to see landfill owners and operators take a leadership role in promoting CTs, an obvious waste management evolution. Opposition from environmentalists is a bit more complex and puzzling.

Members of the environmental community assume ( i.e., fear) that CTs will usurp recycling by consuming recyclables. Nothing is further from the truth. Nations that recover the greatest amount of energy from solid waste are also the nations with the highest recycling rates. And, more importantly, prior to thermal conversion, recyclables are removed from the conversion process. Indeed, commercial recyclers in California are on record as supporting CT development. Given that they make their livings from recycling they would not be supporting CTs if they thought the technology would hurt their respective businesses.

Over the next period of time our blog will detail the many environmental, energy and economic benefits of developing CTs in the United States. These include: increased recycling rates, alleviating threatened landfill crisis, reduction of greenhouse gas and air emissions, the production of distributed renewable energy, and the creation of new green jobs.

In closing, we’d like you to consider why we, in the 21st Century, remain committed to disposing of our wastes by digging holes in the earth and burying it, a 15th Century technique, when we have far more appropriate options like conversion technologies.

Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises

 

Bob Sulnick  Gary Petersen


[1] New sources of oil coming online tend to be more polluting and more dangerous than conventional drilling. Producing oil from sands requires large open pit mines that destroy forests. The tailings from these mines are toxic. And, a barrel of sand-oil crude can have a 10% to 15% larger carbon footprint than conventionally drilled crude oil. Tight-oil production (slant drilling) relies on fracking.  Fracking fluids contain toxic chemicals that can contaminate groundwater. As witnessed  with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico extreme drilling like Brazils’ presalt reservoirs is a disaster waiting to happen, especially if this technique were used in the in accessible Artic.  And, there is the ever looming exacerbation of global climate change. According to Deborah Gordon, at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace “ 21st century oil is not 20th century oil. New, unconventional oils are going to recarbonize global petroleum supplies.

[2] Even if we drilled all of our domestic oil it would take at least ten years to get it to market. We cannot, because of global markets, guarantee it would be used in the U.S., and it most certainly would not cause gas prices to fall.due to aggressive competition from China, India and other emerging fossil fuel economies.  

[3] Conversion technologies are not experimental; they are operating in 28 countries including:Australia, Europe,Japan,South Korea,South Africa. Conversion technologies have been well established in Europe andAsia for more than 20 years, and have been an integral part of meeting their recycling mandates, landfill phase-out mandates and greenhouse gas reductions.

Welcome to this Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises Blog page, where we will be sharing information about topics like conversion technology, sustainable design, clean fuels and much more. We look forward to sharing the latest information and ideas in these topics so stay tuned!

– Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises