Turning Trash To Energy: Can It Work? - Public Goods Blog

Turning Trash To Energy: Can It Work?

Curbing fossil fuel use and reducing trash are two of the most pressing issues threatening our planet’s health. What if there was a way to tackle both at the same time?

garbage truck dumping in landfill

Technology that turns garbage into fuels is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and the unfulfilled market demand makes it potentially lucrative. According to Scientific American, the 468 million metric tons of trash produced in North America each year could create 47 billion liters of ethanol that would equal about 10% of the present U.S. demand for gas. Now add the mountains of trash in our landfills to that and think of how much more of the gas demand we could meet.

As a nation, Sweden has taken substantial strides to become a zero-waste society. In 2016 the country recycled 93% of all glass, 47% of all plastic, and 82% of all paper — far exceeding its goals for 2020 by an average of 20%. In addition to this impressive recycling initiative, Sweden has also begun powering everything from buses to newly centralized apartment heating systems by using food-waste to produce zero emissions biofuel gas and burning garbage in low-carbon incinerators. These actions have been so successful that in 2016, the Independent reported that Sweden had begun importing trash from other countries.

Recently, innovative companies such as Fulcrum BioEnergy and Synova Power have received some buzz for creating energy and green chemicals out of garbage. And it seems that the movement is growing. In fact, according to Deloitte, 26 renewable gas projects have emerged in the United States between 2011 and 2018. 63 more are presently in development.

Turning trash into energy isn’t exactly a new idea and its basic concept is pretty straightforward: reduce the waste to its chemical components and turn it into fuel.

The actual technology, however, is not a miraculous silver bullet against climate change and overflowing landfills.

The actual technology, however, is not a miraculous silver bullet against climate change and overflowing landfills. Execution hasn’t been as straightforward as the idea. There have been quite a few challenges to figuring out how to employ this waste-to-energy process in a clean and cost-effective way.

Nonetheless, many innovative solutions have emerged, and it seems like the industry is starting to take off. Folks in places like Martinsburg, West Virginia have already begun adopting the process with a new waste-to-energy plant from Entsorga. Recently, UPS announced that it’s buying 170 million gallons of biofuel from sources like landfills, dairy farms and wastewater treatment facilities.

One exciting new waste-to-energy company is Synova, a U.S.-based company with offices in Europe and Asia. They’ve come up with an affordable and efficient four-step system that converts waste to fuel and reduces greenhouse gases at the same time.

First, water, sand, metals and recyclables are removed from the waste to create what’s called a “feedstock” — which is what is turned into the fuel. Afterward, the feedstock is “gasified,” producing a dense synthetic gas. Then contaminants such as tar are removed from the gas, and the cleaned gas can be used to produce power. Without this process, some harmful pollutants, like carbon dioxide are released into thin air.

Another company that’s gained quite a bit of traction is California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy. In 2018, the company broke ground on a trash-to-jet fuel plant in Reno, Nevada. Big brands, including United Airlines, have already invested $30 million in the business and signed an estimated $1.58 billion in contracts over the next 10 years.

At the end of 2018, Fulcrum announced plans to build a $600 million waste-to-jet fuel plant in Gary, Indiana that will convert up to 700,000 tons of municipal solid waste into 33 million gallons of jet fuel. The company has also expressed wanting to expand operations to Houston, Seattle and San Francisco, among other locations.

With grim projections such as India’s Trash Mountain becoming taller than the Taj Mahal by 2020, we sincerely hope that the amount of trash being turned into renewable energy catches on quickly around the world.

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