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Video Interview: Mike Hart of Sierra Energy talks about zero waste

Connie Kwan | Monday October 18th, 2010 | 9 Comments

By Connie Kwan

Is zero waste a pipe dream?  This video interview from the recent Going Green 2010 conference with Mike Hart and Laura Carroll of Sierra Energy profiles their technology for converting waste into syngas and liquid slag.  Syngas, which comprises of 70% carbon dioxide and 30% hydrogen, can be further processed into fuels such as ethanol and clean diesel.  Solid waste contains a lot of energy that can be recovered.  In fact, Sierra Energy’s process only requires 2-5% of the harvested energy, leaving plenty of fuel to use on other applications.  The system cost is also low enough that should solid waste increase to a positive price, the system will continue to generate enough fuel to generate positive revenue.  That is certainly good news for cities in debt trying to manage their solid waste.

Connie Kwan is a GreenTech Marketing professional based in Silicon Valley, CA.  She is pursuing an MBA in Sustainability at Presidio Graduate School and blogs about sustainability and business at Sustainable Thinking: Applied.


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  • Ed

    Zero waste is not a pipe dream. But gasification as a green energy or a zero waste solution is a pipe dream.

    Zero waste is not about burning, gasifying, pyrolysizing, etc.

    Zero waste is about going “beyond recycling by taking a whole system approach to the vast flow of resources and waste through human society.”

    While maximizing recycling, zero waste “minimizes waste, reduces consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.”

    To learn more:
    http://www.grrn.org/zerowaste/index.html

    Don’t be a victim of green energy greenwashing.

    • http://www.sierraenergycorp.com Mike Hart

      I would be intruiged to know if Ed is yet another landfill supporter masquerading as a zero waste advocate. Landfill operators love zero waste as it will maintain the status quo for decades to come.

      “burning, gasifying, pyrolysizing” is the giveaway- either the person failed science or is simply trying to mislead through generalization of dissimilar processes.

      True zero waste occurs when you are able to recycle 100% of the materials that society is finished with, not just pick out the bits that have the highest economic value.

      Even the most aggressive recycling programs end up with about 20% of materials that are uneconomic to return to their original constituents (medical waste, mixed wastes, pampers etc. stuff that cannot be easily separated). Some pseudo-zero waste supporters are content to toss this enormous mound of trash into a landfill while patting themselves on the back and saying that society must change its wasteful ways and there is no solution in the meantime. These “environmentalists” embrace 260 million tons of CO2e going into the atmosphere each year. Simply shameful.

      Zero waste is achievable today. Recycle everything that is possible at its highest economic form and recover the highest embedded carbon value. Do not throw anything into a landfill. Gasify what remains as a source of clean energy.

      • Ed

        Sorry to disappoint Mike Hart and his fantasy of masquerade, but I am neither a landfill supporter nor supporter of incinerators, pyrolysis, gasification, etc.

        The ad hominem allusions (“failed science,” “pseudo-zero waste supporters,” etc.) are unproductive and hateful.

        Just as landfill supporters want to continue the throw-away-society status quo of inefficient and toxic product design and lack of reuse, so do the supporters of incinerators, pyrolysis, gasification, etc.

        Sadly, gasification emits dioxins and other harmful pollutants, despite industry claims that they are “green energy” technologies.

        To learn about good product design, read Cradle to Cradle:
        http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm

        And check out the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives:
        http://www.no-burn.org/

        Especially their page on Incinerators in Disguise:
        http://www.no-burn.org/section.php?id=132

        And as mentioned earlier for information on zero waste, the GrassRoots Recycling Network:
        http://www.grrn.org/zerowaste/index.html

        And also for more on zero waste, the Zero Waste Alliance:
        http://www.zerowaste.org/

        • http://www.sierraenergycorp.com Mike Hart

          Okay, lets make this a Turing Test of the blogosphere. Ed, I am Mike Hart, President and CEO of Sierra Energy. My website at http://www.sierraenergycorp.com explains the process we utilize. The US EPA was kind enough to name me an environmental hero. Dan Sperling, author of 2 Billion Cars and member of the California Air Resource Board is an advisor. We have spent $3M of our own money (not VC) to develop a new technology that avoids the issues of prior gasification technologies, such as the formation of dioxins, and to have it dismissed out of hand with:

          “Sadly, gasification emits dioxins and other harmful pollutants, despite industry claims that they are “green energy” technologies.” from a webperson named “Ed” is a little annoying. I assume that you can tell me the temperature that dioxins form, and then explain to me your statements when we operate at 4,000F.

          You have provided a laundry list of links, most of which have nothing to do with the subject and the few that do are out of date “Blowing Smoke” for example is a dreadful document and most of their references are simply made up.

          Don’t simply blather about generalities. Tell me what your specific issues are with this specific technology. You sound like a Japanese fisherman saying that killing dolphins is okay because they are just “fish”. Use actual facts…

          In the end, the reason the landfill industry is such a huge supporter of “zero waste” is that it keeps them in business for decades to come. It means that municipalities will need to dramatically increase their payments to these companies to pay for hand-pick recycling. Yes, I suspect you are a shill for the industry even if an unwitting one. We need to end the practice of throwing our waste into a hole in the ground and letting it emit methane into our atmosphere. Zero waste is a good societal goal, but letting the landfill industry get away with what they are doing for decades to come is simply wrong.

  • ucdwino

    I love how heated this debate gets. I think that there is a fundamental distrust of things that LOOK like incinerators, and that people don’t care to look into the science of what is being proposed because they think they have seen it all before.

    I understand that position, but I don’t think it is helpful. What is wierd is how two environmentalists are at odds on such a fundamental level.

    Having looked at Sierra Energy’s website as well as the incinerators in disguise, there is definatley a disconnect between what is opposed, and what is proposed. Specifically the blowing smoke article is assuming that syngas gets burnt directly without being cleaned. (they call it “staged incineration”)

    From what I understand of the promise of gasification is that is the key difference: You can make syngas, put it through scrubbers to clean it and THEN use it for energy – so all of the pollutants that we associate with incineration are out of the equation.

    I did a lot of research on this while my wife and I were considering cloth diapering my son (which we did). While the cloth diapers kept material out of a landfill, washing them time and time again meant we make more wastewater, consumed more energy etc etc.

    The same with reusable cups (my trusty nalgene for example)

    I’m sure that one of those routes is better for our planet than the other – but thinking about ZERO waste I have to agree with Mr. Hart here – it’s a pipe dream.

    If we look at our interests, and what we have in common: ie taking the lowest-impact path for the environment, then I think we should all agree:
    1) Landfilling is bad
    2) We can make HUGE strides in reducing waste – that should come first
    3) For the waste that we really cannot reduce reuse or recycle, a clean reclamation of that waste as energy is a good thing.

    Its too easy to treat this as an “either/or” issue. Instead it should be a “yes / and” issue

  • Ed

    Turing Test? – fear not: I am not a robot but let’s put Mike Hart’s robo- and other fantasies aside.

    This is not about whose degree, award, or title is bigger. Nor is it about intimidating the public out of participating in a very important discussion about zero waste and how materials or stuff are handled — be that up the supply chain in resource extraction to manufacturing to post-consumer. (See Story of Stuff for more on that: http://www.storyofstuff.com/ )

    We need to keep moving beyond a disposable-society status quo that includes waste addicts like landfilling, incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, etc., however well-intentioned they may be, to better designed products, more efficient material (or stuff) use, and zero waste.

    Zero waste means reducing what we trash in landfills, incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, etc., to zero. Whereas waste addicts need and thrive in a world of inefficiency, toxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, and the like.

    To paraphrase Gil Friend in The Truth About Green Business (http://www.natlogic.com/resources/publications/the-truth-about-green-business/ ):

    “From a green business perspective, ‘wastes’ are products that companies ‘manufacture’ – incurring costs, yet adding no value to either customers or shareholders, in fact ‘wastes’ often cost a business money to dispose of or treat. Spending that money, whether to produce ‘waste’ or treat it, makes no sense – economically or ecologically.”

    Triple Pundit has highlighted the work of many companies that are reducing material use and working towards sustainability and zero waste. These companies are looking up and down the value chain for opportunities for efficient design, nontoxic material use, and material recycling and reuse. Here are just a few recent examples – some companies have a way to go:

    MillerCoors’ two zero-waste breweries
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/07/millercoors-talks-sustainability-2010-csr-report/

    eBay’s Zero Waste for Green Space program
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/green-teams-three-examples-ebay-is-using-to-meet-corporate-sustainability-goals/

    WalMart’s zero waste policy
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/10/the-two-faces-of-walmart/

    Parsons and Louis Vuitton’s zero waste effort
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/10/make-work-parsons-louis-vuitton-waste/

  • http://www.sierraenergycorp.com Mike Hart

    I think I understand your position a bit better now. Its not a matter of technical opposition to gasification as much as a philosophical one.

    While I agree with the philosophy I have been suspicious of many of the organizations that were first to embrace “zero waste”- landfill operators. I understand that you are not a bot for WMX now… Their support is cynical and based on the fact that most of the active policy members of the environmental community live on the “fringes” of America (SF, LA, NY). SF may recycle 77% of their waste, but how long until Omaha does the same?

    There are 2,300 active landfills in America. There are aggresive environmental policies on a handful of them. It will be decades until any sort of true policy change trickles down to them all.

    We feel that it is better to create an economically viable solution today, while we encourage industry to implement zero waste practices for tomorrow. No amount of regulation can accomplish what good economics can do in a few short years.

  • ucdwino

    I applaud the corporate waste reduction efforts that Ed linked, but I still posit that “zero” waste is an idea – something to be strived for, but not actually achievable.

    To that end I think that is important that our definition of zero waste not merely focus on what goes to the recycling center vs the landfill, but of net resource consumption and pollution as well.

    If trucking something to a recycling center and consuming the fossil energy needed to re-cycle a product is more damaging to the environment than the landfill should we really be so committed to recycling?

    Im not actually advocating that position – only suggesting that we look at the whole lifecycle, not just be blindly devoted to the idea of recycling or zero waste, when in reality they might not be the best option in every case

    When it comes to gasification, I think I so enthusiastically support that idea because I know that the usage of energy in making many products reusable (ie washing or recycling them) is a larger threat than what is posed by the landfill.

    We are so completely addicted to energy, (fossil in particular) that spending energy to make a waste stream go away is a false economy. If we can turn that material into energy, and do so with zero pollution, then we reduce the energy demand overall AND displace fossil fuel consumption with energy from biological resources (ie our waste)

    That is the best route in my opinion. If SIerra or another gasification technology can deliver waste to energy WITHOUT pollution, then it is an ideal solution.

    Where the gasification opposition is really doing everyone a dis-service is in their failure to separate newer technologies for creating energy from the older technologies designed merely to dispose of trash.

    Its not about being addicted to waste, it’s about a full-cycle approach that is committed to low-pollution instead of our favorite recycling programs etc.

    To be clean, green and energy independent, a process like the one proposed by Sierra Energy MUST be part of the mix – alongside waste reduction, re-use and recycling.

  • Teddy Chan

    It may work