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The Beauty of Planning Ahead: Waste Management at its Best

| Wednesday March 3rd, 2010 | 6 Comments

I’m here in Florida for Waste Management‘s Industry Summit.  The day kicked off with tours of Broward County Florida’s recycling facility (Reuters Recycling) and waste to energy facility (Wheelabrator South Broward).  By no coincidence, this particular community has what is quite possibly the most advanced and integrated waste management system in the country.  A resident of San Francisco, I was shocked to see that a county in Florida, of all places, might have a higher diversion rate.  Turns out that in the mid-80s, Broward County noticed that landfills were scarce and filling fast and they would need an alternative plan.  So they built two waste-to-energy facilities to avoid landfilling waste.  Foresight.  What a refreshing concept.

If you live in Broward County, you have two bins – trash and single stream recycling.  All trash gets sent to the waste to energy facility (unless you live in one of the five out of 31 municipalities that still insist on landfilling) and is basically burned to create electricity.  (The facility I saw has the capacity to power 38,000 homes).  About 10 percent by volume of the waste emerges as ash, and is placed in the neighboring landfill which happens to only accept ash.  Lynn Brown, VP of Corporate Communications, pointed out that some municipalities with waste to energy even do cool things with their ash, like make bricks or use it for daily cover at the landfill.

If you put something in the recycling bin, it is brought to the Reuters Recyclery, which is the second largest single stream recycling facility in the country.  It was indeed massive.  So, at the end of the day – the only landfilled debris is the 10% of waste that ends up as ash.  All else is recycled or turned to energy.  Pretty cool, right?  Only thing lacking is composting, which Waste Management is working on.

No wonder Waste Management was eager to show Broward County’s facilities off to the analysts, bankers, investors and others in attendance.  That said, it’s clear that WM is pushing hard in the right direction–with waste to energy plants popping up across the country and heavy R&D investments and joint ventures in leading edge waste technology.  In my conversations with Brown, she referred to waste as a valuable resource that we need to learn to tap most effectively.  People toss out billions of dollars of stuff each year–let’s make the most of it.

Ed Note: In the interest of full disclosure, WM has covered Amie’s travel expenses to the Florida summit


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  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

    Hey Amie, cool stuff! I'm interested to hear about this burning- have they talked at all about air quality managment? What about toxics that are in the trash? How do they make sure that the ash/emissions aren't harmful?

  • http://twitter.com/amievaccaro Amie Vaccaro

    Jen, Thanks so much for your question. And definitely something I neglected to cover. The Wheelabrator waste to energy facilities have a very elaborate system to ensure that the air coming out is nearly harmless. (Several of the WM folks referred to it as less harmful than a backyard BBQ).

    After the combustion process, the following happens to air before being discharged:
    -Urea is injected to control NOX
    -Powder activated carbon is injected to control trace organics and mercury dioxin
    -Air passes through scrubbers with lime spray to remove acid gases and eliminate particulate
    -Then it passes through a fabric filter which they refer to as a giant vacuum cleaner. Nothing larger than 1 micron gets through.
    Finally the gas is discharged thru the stack. The remaining ash that comes out is used as daily cover or landfilled.

    Waste to energy (WTE) generates 837 pounds of Co2 per megawatt of energy, compared to 2,249 from burning coal or 1,672 for oil. Taking into account the avoided emissions, WTE is considered climate neutral.

    Hope that helps. Check out http://www.wte.org for more.

  • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com/ Nick Palmer

    I really don't think you should be so positive about incinerators. They are counter-productive to achieving maximum waste diversion to recycling and, once built, they require a constant supply of combustible material to keep them going, which impinges on zero waste initiatives. While better than landfill, that's not saying much – in any event, about 40% of the waste remains as ash which has to be – guess what? – landfilled. The fly ash (in the filters) from the incineration process is pretty toxic too. The amount of energy they “recover” is a small fraction of that which is embodied in the manufacture of the materials they burn.

    • http://twitter.com/amievaccaro Amie Vaccaro

      Nick,
      Thanks for your comments. A few responses:
      -Only 10% of waste by volume remains as ash after going through the Wheelabrator WTE plant, and that lands in the landfill.
      -I think paired with a world class recycling plant (this one is), I think its a good thing.

      But I hear you. The central point is that zero waste is better than burning waste. I agree. So much of what we do these days is a step in the right direction, and I would include this in that category. It's not all the way there and definitely not perfect. What would you like to see WM doing in this particular case? In Broward County, the country itself commissioned the facility due to minimal landfill space. What would you have them do otherwise?

      Looking forward to your thoughts.

      • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com/ Nick Palmer

        Hi Amie,
        The Waste Management industry always emphasises the volume reduction of the waste, compared with land-filling it. I have always found that rather misleading because they compare the volume of the ash with the initial volume of the unburned waste. There's a pretty significant reduction over time of the volume of landfill waste due to compression, decomposition etc. Comparing the mass of the waste to the mass of the ash gives a better idea of how fast landfills will fill up. That's where the 40% figure comes from.

        You mention the “world class” recycling plant. If you're recycling all the paper, card, tyres, wood, metal, electrical and electronic goods and building waste etc. – and maybe you have food waste collection for an anaerobic digestion plant, what's left in the waste after all that apart from plastic? I presume you have PET bottle collection so what's left is a mishmash of various polymers which are generally regarded as difficult to separate and recycle effectively. There are systems which use mixed polymers and combine them with wood fibre to create a kind of “plastic wood” building material but I don't approve of those very much (because, again, by providing a “market” for the plastic waste they act as a barrier to zero waste aspirations).

        What's left that is combustible is pretty much packaging waste and this is where incinerators cast a dark shadow, so to speak. In order for them to actually burn they need waste with a minimum calorific value. If all that's left for disposal is the type of packaging, that we currently use to much of in our non-sustainable society, for the incinerator to keep on working, then we would need a constant supply of it which is directly antagonistic to initiatives to replace one-trip packaging systems with reusable, refillable, ultimately recyclable systems (which would probably specify different materials etc.). Easy disposal routes hinder sustainability strategy!

        You mentioned that the county commissioned the facility due to minimal landfill space. Well, been there done that. I come from Jersey, Channel Islands (Google Earth 49 deg 12N, 2 deg 8W) which is a small island with an awful lot of people on it – we're only 40 square miles in area but we have 100,000 people. We had practically filled up our available landfill space by the early seventies and our government went for an early incinerator with partial energy recovery. We had no more landfill space and so we started reclaiming land from the sea with concrete walls, then in-filling these with the ash and the large volumes of builders' rubble due to the large amounts of construction taking place.

        you wrote:
        What would you like to see WM doing in this particular case?

        Butting out! Every incidence of the WM (aka commercially biased incinerator industry) persuading authorities to adopt an incineration system that demands combustible waste in order to feed it is another pothole on the road to sustainability.

        Our original incinerator is now at the end of its life after 30 years and unfortunately our government has just voted a huge amount of money to buy a new one – which admittedly will be far cleaner than the old one but it is still just a two stream incinerator. Each stream will be capable of handling 55,000 tonnes per annum so they will need this amount of combustible refuse to keep the fires burning.

        The solution that myself, and others, came up with (working with the environment scrutiny panel of our government) was a 12 stream pyrolysis/gasification unit capable of handling Jersey's current waste amount of 80,000 tonnes per year plus a materials separating plant and an anaerobic digestion plant with generators to handle the putrescible/organic fraction. We could do it for almost half the price qouted for the giant incinerator. The reasoning for a pyrolysis plant was thus. Seven years ago, our government had predicted that municipal refuse would continue to increase in a straight line graph as far forward as they looked (2035) – they sized the incinerator to cope with this volume. We said that they were ignoring the strong beginnings of the moves towards more sustainable practices and we predicted that the waste volumes would at least stabilise at their current levels and then start to fall (this has actually started to occur already for authorities in the UK). Based on this prediction, we said that the incinerator, having very little flexibility, would reach a point at which it was unable to burn the rubbish either efficiently or at all. The alternative solution of the multiple independent modules of the pyrolysis plant could have units taken off-line one by one as waste volumes reduced and, being relatively portable, they could even be sold on to other authorities. More significantly, pyrolysis units combined with gasification can do many “tricks” which incinerators can't. Agricultural waste and forestry trimmings can create biochar which is a very exciting subject which is being intensively looked at to sequester carbon in agricultural land with the bonus that it increases fertility and reduces leaching of nutrients. Mixed plastic organic waste can be converted into syngas (synthesis gas) which can be catalysed into synthetic diesel. Car tyres can be converted into valuable carbon black.

        The system we came up with was far more flexible and was relatively future proof, individual units being able to be progressively retired or converted to other uses, or even sold, as the amount of municipal refuse needing processing started to fall in future.

        Our government, with all the foresight of people used to driving by watching the rear view mirror at the way things used to work voted for an enormous new incinerator which is currently approximately a year away from completion. Meanwhile the environment scrutiny panel myself and others are carrying on with our plan of negotiating with a recycling contractor on the nearby coast of France to take the vast majority of our waste for recycling and reuse. Our government has just spent over £110,000,000 pounds on this plant and within a very short time of it going into operation will probably find that they do not have enough combustible rubbish to burn in it. They didn't listen because they listened to the Waste Management industry and their tame consultants.

        I hope that Florida considers that sustainability concerns will rapidly reduce the amount of waste for final disposal and will almost certainly reduce the combustibility of that waste to the point where it won't burn. Incinerators will become first ineffective then redundant.

  • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com/ Nick Palmer

    Hi Amie,
    The Waste Management industry always emphasises the volume reduction of the waste, compared with land-filling it. I have always found that rather misleading because they compare the volume of the ash with the initial volume of the unburned waste. There's a pretty significant reduction over time of the volume of landfill waste due to compression, decomposition etc. Comparing the mass of the waste to the mass of the ash gives a better idea of how fast landfills will fill up. That's where the 40% figure comes from.

    You mention the “world class” recycling plant. If you're recycling all the paper, card, tyres, wood, metal, electrical and electronic goods and building waste etc. – and maybe you have food waste collection for an anaerobic digestion plant, what's left in the waste after all that apart from plastic? I presume you have PET bottle collection so what's left is a mishmash of various polymers which are generally regarded as difficult to separate and recycle effectively. There are systems which use mixed polymers and combine them with wood fibre to create a kind of “plastic wood” building material but I don't approve of those very much (because, again, by providing a “market” for the plastic waste they act as a barrier to zero waste aspirations).

    What's left that is combustible is pretty much packaging waste and this is where incinerators cast a dark shadow, so to speak. In order for them to actually burn they need waste with a minimum calorific value. If all that's left for disposal is the type of packaging, that we currently use to much of in our non-sustainable society, for the incinerator to keep on working, then we would need a constant supply of it which is directly antagonistic to initiatives to replace one-trip packaging systems with reusable, refillable, ultimately recyclable systems (which would probably specify different materials etc.). Easy disposal routes hinder sustainability strategy!

    You mentioned that the county commissioned the facility due to minimal landfill space. Well, been there done that. I come from Jersey, Channel Islands (Google Earth 49 deg 12N, 2 deg 8W) which is a small island with an awful lot of people on it – we're only 40 square miles in area but we have 100,000 people. We had practically filled up our available landfill space by the early seventies and our government went for an early incinerator with partial energy recovery. We had no more landfill space and so we started reclaiming land from the sea with concrete walls, then in-filling these with the ash and the large volumes of builders' rubble due to the large amounts of construction taking place.

    you wrote:
    What would you like to see WM doing in this particular case?

    Butting out! Every incidence of the WM (aka commercially biased incinerator industry) persuading authorities to adopt an incineration system that demands combustible waste in order to feed it is another pothole on the road to sustainability.

    Our original incinerator is now at the end of its life after 30 years and unfortunately our government has just voted a huge amount of money to buy a new one – which admittedly will be far cleaner than the old one but it is still just a two stream incinerator. Each stream will be capable of handling 55,000 tonnes per annum so they will need this amount of combustible refuse to keep the fires burning.

    The solution that myself, and others, came up with (working with the environment scrutiny panel of our government) was a 12 stream pyrolysis/gasification unit capable of handling Jersey's current waste amount of 80,000 tonnes per year plus a materials separating plant and an anaerobic digestion plant with generators to handle the putrescible/organic fraction. We could do it for almost half the price qouted for the giant incinerator. The reasoning for a pyrolysis plant was thus. Seven years ago, our government had predicted that municipal refuse would continue to increase in a straight line graph as far forward as they looked (2035) – they sized the incinerator to cope with this volume. We said that they were ignoring the strong beginnings of the moves towards more sustainable practices and we predicted that the waste volumes would at least stabilise at their current levels and then start to fall (this has actually started to occur already for authorities in the UK). Based on this prediction, we said that the incinerator, having very little flexibility, would reach a point at which it was unable to burn the rubbish either efficiently or at all. The alternative solution of the multiple independent modules of the pyrolysis plant could have units taken off-line one by one as waste volumes reduced and, being relatively portable, they could even be sold on to other authorities. More significantly, pyrolysis units combined with gasification can do many “tricks” which incinerators can't. Agricultural waste and forestry trimmings can create biochar which is a very exciting subject which is being intensively looked at to sequester carbon in agricultural land with the bonus that it increases fertility and reduces leaching of nutrients. Mixed plastic organic waste can be converted into syngas (synthesis gas) which can be catalysed into synthetic diesel. Car tyres can be converted into valuable carbon black.

    The system we came up with was far more flexible and was relatively future proof, individual units being able to be progressively retired or converted to other uses, or even sold, as the amount of municipal refuse needing processing started to fall in future.

    Our government, with all the foresight of people used to driving by watching the rear view mirror at the way things used to work voted for an enormous new incinerator which is currently approximately a year away from completion. Meanwhile the environment scrutiny panel myself and others are carrying on with our plan of negotiating with a recycling contractor on the nearby coast of France to take the vast majority of our waste for recycling and reuse. Our government has just spent over £110,000,000 pounds on this plant and within a very short time of it going into operation will probably find that they do not have enough combustible rubbish to burn in it. They didn't listen because they listened to the Waste Management industry and their tame consultants.

    I hope that Florida considers that sustainability concerns will rapidly reduce the amount of waste for final disposal and will almost certainly reduce the combustibility of that waste to the point where it won't burn. Incinerators will become first ineffective then redundant.