For those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about the possibility of a timely transition to a sustainable future, there is a question lurking beneath the surface that doesn’t get a lot of attention. The question concerns that great undifferentiated mass of people known as the public. Is it possible that the American public might continue to sail blithely along the self-absorbed path that our magnificent marketing machine has guided them to, unaware, some might even say oblivious, to the great challenges that now confront all manner of living things on our planet, only to awaken one day as residents of a sustainable society?
This magical transformation would occur, presumably, as a result of the efforts of newly responsible corporations, harnessing enormously benign powers of innovation that had lain dormant in the halls and corridors till now, abetted by suddenly earnest politicians who have finally thrown off the shackles of the campaign finance imperative and actually done what was right for the broadest of interests rather than the wealthiest.
It’s a nice dream, and one that is probably not that far removed from the hopes and wishes of many of us that worry about these things. But it’s missing the involvement of the third leg of our society: namely, the people.
When I speak with people about the future, I often find that the most optimistic are those who view the world through a technological lens, with their great faith in the power of innovation. Perhaps, least optimistic are the social scientists. They not only understand the importance of human factors, but also recognize how difficult it is to change those. Somewhere in the middle are the public policy folks, who are too busy engaging in the fight to even hazard an opinion as to how things will turn out.
Today’s story clearly comes out of the first group. It is about the city of Houston, which despite considerable efforts has not been able to raise its recycling rate above 14 percent. That’s even slightly worse than the notoriously poor performing New York City (15 percent) and miles behind the likes of San Francisco (72 percent), Portland (56.8 percent) or Seattle (53.7 percent).
Only Detroit, at 10.5 percent, seems to have scored lower among major cities.
Ready to throw in the towel when it comes to getting people to change their habits, Houston officials have decided to try a technological approach instead. The Total Reuse—One Bin For All initiative was Houston’s entry in the Mayor’s Challenge, a Bloomberg Philanthropies competition. After being named as one of 20 finalists, Houston now has the opportunity to win the $5 million grand prize or one of the four $1 million runner-up prizes. The team estimates that recycling this way can bring them up to 75 percent utilization or better, possibly making them the best in the country.
Houston’s Sustainability Director, Laura Spanjian, and her team traveled all across the U.S. and even to Europe to see what other cities were doing about waste.
What she found were bits and bits of the total reuse solution they’d envisioned, spread around in various places.
They found that Organic Energy Corporation offers a one-bin waste sorting solution. Another company called BHS operates a material recovery facility in San Jose, California that does sorting, but it doesn’t deal with food waste. ZeroWaste picks up the slack there, operating anaerobic digesters to turn the food waste into methane. And CRI Catalyst Company–a Houston-based company–offers a technology that can turn biomass into gasoline or diesel.
“There are tons of waste to energy companies,” said Spanjian. ”In essence, they want to burn your trash, and we don’t want to do that. [CRI] can take biomass, wood cardboard, some food and yard waste and turn that into a drop-in fuel to put into a car,” Spanjian said. Under this scenario, CO2 reductions will be equivalent to removing 5,000 vehicles from the roads each year.
Apparently they had not come across Fiberight, of Catonsville, Maryland. Fiberight has already put all the pieces together in a pre-commercial reference plant, now operating in Lawrenceville, Virginia. They sort out the recyclables, then separate the cellulosic pulp from the soluble organics, producing both cellulosic ethanol and CNG as byproducts. A full scale plant is also in the works in Blairstown, Iowa. The Blairstown facility will serve 225,000 people in the local area and produce 6 million gallons of ethanol, plus an additional 4.5 million equivalent gallons of CNG. Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart Paul estimates that 80-85 percent of all material will be utilized.
This looks like a perfect solution for Houston, though you have to wonder if, being America’s oil capital, they will have a problem with the idea of producing ethanol from their trash.
Image Courtesy of Fiberight
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.