Turning Trash Into Energy

May 11, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015

Economic development and industrialization present both a prize and a price. The growing need for sustainable energy, coupled with the severity of America’s waste problem, has left many people looking for environmentally and economically viable solutions.

One such development is known as waste gasification, and individuals around the country find themselves on opposing sides of the issue.

Waste gasification is a process that uses high temperatures to convert just about any form of municipal waste into a synthetic gas, also known as syngas, without burning the material. The syngas can then be used for things like generating electricity and manufacturing liquid fuels. Materials such as paper, plastic, and rubber can be gasified—metal and glass cannot.

According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a research company owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, there are 18 gasification plants operating in the United States, roughly 10 percent of the world’s total. Thirty-seven percent of all the plants in the world are in the Asia/Australia region, with most of those operating in China.

In 2010, Cleveland signed an agreement with the Princeton Environmental Group, a New Jersey-based company, to build a waste gasification plant. Since that time, however, the plane has met with significant obstacles.

In February, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich expressed his concerns to the EPA, according to cleveland.com.

“The Ohio EPA is trying to ram through a permit for the trash incinerator without protecting the people of Cleveland and their air, water, and soil. I brought to the attention of authorities my community’s request to have the EPA review the permit Ohio EPA wanted to issue. My concerns were confirmed,” Kucinich said at a press conference, according to cleveland.com.

Brooklyn City Councilman Tom Murphy attended the press conference with the intention of hearing both sides. “It is emerging technology that may be viable in the future, but not now,” Murphy said, according to the cleveland.com article. “We may be looking at this technology again.”

Other proposed waste gasification plants that plan to operate in Rockport, Ind.; Attleboro, Mass.; and Boise, Idaho; are also meeting with legal complications.

Community members in Boise raised concerns over the possible health risks.

Speaking with NWCN.com, Boise resident Andre Gensburger commented, “Bottom line, it may well be a sound technology, but how about showing us that? So that we don’t have to worry 10 years down the road that the cancer rates in town are going to skyrocket and our properties are going to be worth a dollar-fifty.”

According to NWCN.com, Dynamis Energy submitted a permit application to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality citing 15-year case studies that show similar equipment does not produce harmful emissions, and the only residue will be neutral ash.

Supporters of gasification insist the process is not incineration. According to the Gasification Technologies Council, the main difference between waste gasification and incineration is the production of a clean syngas in the gasification process.

Incineration is a waste treatment process that burns materials to produce heat for electricity. Incineration is criticized because it produces large amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

The Gasification Technologies Council points out the role gasification could play in decreasing methane emission and reducing the risk of groundwater contamination from landfills. NETL also stresses the important role gasification plays in decreasing water and air emissions.

According to NETL, in 2006, 251 million tons of trash was generated in the United States, and 82 million tons, or 32 percent, of that was recycled. NETL asserts that most of the unrecycled trash could be used through waste gasification.

A study conducted by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) found waste-to-energy technologies offer environmental and economical benefits.

“This study is the latest in a growing body of information showing that many of the things we’ve viewed as waste actually have tremendous potential as energy resources,” stated Vice President of Plastics Steve Russell, on the ACC website. “As a complement to a robust recycling infrastructure, conversion technologies offer environmental benefits and cost savings over traditional waste disposal processes.”

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) asserts gasification facilities have many of the same environmental risks as mass-burn incinerators. They say that both incineration and gentrification pollute the air and water, discharge toxic ash and other toxic by-products, and produce undesirable odors. BREDL is also concerned that gasification plants may undermine local recycling and composting programs.

BREDL advises that the gasification of petroleum-based plastics adds to greenhouse gases as much as burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

BREDL also warns of gasification’s inevitable and unusable byproduct: a thick, tar-like substance referred to as slag.

The ACC and RTI study notes that slag can sometimes be used in road construction, but when it’s not, it final destination is the landfill.

According to the report, “Energy Recovery from Municipal Solid Wastes by Gasification,” delivered at the North American Waste-to-Energy Conference, waste gasification’s main disadvantage is the production of slag and other inorganic compounds that must be removed before syngas can be used in engines.

The report confirms, however, that gasification converts energy to electricity more efficiently then incineration, and produces less harmful emissions.

The report goes on to say that “waste gasification will be most successful in communities where there is good recycling practice. This is one example that material recovery, by recycling, and energy recovery from waste, are complementary in an integrated plan for waste management.”

The ACC’s Russell agrees, “As a complement to a robust recycling infrastructure, conversion technologies offer environmental benefits and cost savings over traditional waste disposal processes.”

Gasification is not a singular solution to the problem of waste management, but if used in conjunction with recycling and composting programs, some view it as a step in the right direction. If used wisely, many hope it can serve as a useful tool in the big picture of environmental sustainability.

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