More and more technologies are being developed
to convert trash into energy – gases and electricity – and these
systems are slowly being installed in communities to help to
reduce the costs of dealing with trash.
Existing models to deal with waste are being
challenged, but like many new products or processes, it takes
time to establish working models that meet the criteria of municipalities
that will eventually replace traditional models.
American Recycler spoke with Conrad Oakey,
marketing specialist for Owing Mills, Maryland-based NovaTech,
LLC, a company that specializes in electric utility and industrial
With landfilling garbage becoming more expensive,
especially along the east and west coasts, how important is it
for cities and counties to develop alternative means of dealing
with their recyclable materials and the residual materials?
Oakey: On the policy side, it is important
for the people who live in cities to understand and decide on
the policies they’re going to insist on from their governments.
Economically, the price per-ton of tipping fees going into landfills
is really like the price of oil, only more so going down the
line. It’s going to drive investment in conversion technologies
and other solutions.
The first few pilot scale systems that can
demonstrate cash positive operation after running for a few years
will show which technologies and approaches make real world sense.
Are technologies to maximize recyclables processing
for reuse and power generation available today?
Oakey: Pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion are
pretty mature in certain applications. There is a lot of research
going on in algae. The technology is available and a lot of them
are at the point that we just need the first project phase and
towns that select good innovative projects that will breakout
and will be successful stories. It should be good for the towns
if they become the places that learn how to convert their waste
into revenue, learn what policies go with those technologies
and can create local employment with them. Then they will have
opportunities to educate other towns around them and be leaders
Three or four towns could pool their resources
to install a system. If you take pyrolysis as an example, you
might need 100 tons of combustible waste per day to have enough
incoming fuel stock to meet a utility contract. Power generating
operations require a certain volume, so whatever that number
is, if these towns could consolidate their capital together into
a shared facility that works too. A shared set up of upstream
sorting policies (i.e., organics, glass, metal and all else)
and a central collection and conversion point for all the partners
could be selected. The vehicles that collect the garbage for
that site can even be converted to run on the syn gas (or extracted
hydrogen) that is produced at that facility. Depending on the
state and how the waste conversion technology is classified,
there may be renewable energy credits to help pay for the investment.
What types of technologies and systems should
municipalities invest in? Can future improvements be incorporated?
Oakey: An example that comes to mind would
be a town that has an existing incinerator with their collection
practices in place and they want to turn that incinerator into
an energy source. That would mean updating some equipment and
re-engineering the facility. The policy points vary, but pyrolysis
has been classified as recycling technology, so it would enable
those that already have incinerators to look at alternatives
and additional incentives.
Are technologies like pyrolysis expensive
to purchase or is it a question of a large initial outlay that
pays for itself in a few years and then generates a revenue for
the municipal operator? What steps would municipalities need
to take to set up the infrastructure needed?
Oakey: It is an investment and there is supposed
to be a payoff down the line. It’s very individual to local municipalities
as to what combinations of technologies and incentives are going
to work to help pay for it, but there are a lot of people trying
to figure out how to do these projects and project developers
will look at individual situations and tell you what could work
in your situation.
In terms of the actual processes, there are
probably some separation issues. In Seattle I understand that
that if you put anything that is vegetable in your regular garbage,
they can give you a sizeable fine. A lot of conversion technologies
that are available do better when the waste stream is of high
BTU content and not wet, so a municipality would probably want
to take food waste to an anaerobic digester and take combustible
garbage to a pyrolysis unit, with hard metals and glass sent
to a recycling operation, so upstream separation and separation
at the facilities themselves is an important and somewhat hard
to quantify ongoing cost. What are the insurance risks involved
in having people hand-sift waste streams? That will be an additional
Eco Soul Ventures LLC is working with its
local partners in French Polynesia to establish waste to energy
systems in Tahiti that will extract energy from the local solid
waste streams. What type of system will be installed?
Oakey: It is a phased project that is in the
engineering stage at this time. Phase I is a solar PV installation
on a purpose built structure that will house the pyrolysis unit
in Phase II. The revenue from the solar system will help support
the waste to energy system in Phase II that may be expanded over
time to meet local material flows.
You can also utilize carbon dioxide from
the pyrolysis unit and feed it to algae in closed bio-reactors
to produce fuel. It’s a complimentary system that is part of
an integrated approach. Tahiti is a natural to become a leader
in local power production. The reason that Tahiti and other islands
are early candidates for this type of system integration is due
to their isolation, they have high fossil fuel energy cost –
the majority of electrical power comes from diesel via tanker.
Compared to the mainland coal-fired grid, they have a higher
cost which is a clear incentive to innovate.
When do you foresee major American cities
abandoning the traditional system of landfilling trash and utilizing
Oakey: When the technology has been proven
somewhere and enough people could see that it is environmentally
sound, cash positive and does not harm local employment – that
an existing infrastructure is being repurposed. When that sinks
in, the opportunities will present themselves.