Turning Garbage Into Jet Fuel: Sustainable Solution or Incineration in Disguise?

British AirwaysCan garbage power your plane ride from New York to London? That’s the idea behind a new production plant that will transform waste from London’s homes and businesses into a jet fuel that costs about the same price as conventional petroleum-based fuel but burns cleaner and produces fewer carbon emissions.

Solena Fuels, a company that produces aviation and marine fuels made from solid waste, expects to break ground on its new GreenSky jet fuel facility next year on the site of a former oil refinery outside of London. British Airways has made a $550 million commitment to purchase all the fuel produced by the plant in the 11-year period after it opens in 2017–equating to about 50 tons of fuel per year.

The city of London generates approximately 18 million tons of trash per year, according to Fast Company, and once the jet fuel facility is open for business, will send about a half a million tons of garbage originally destined for the landfill to GreenSky. Solena will turn this trash into 120,000 tons of jet fuel, first using its patented high-temperature plasma gasification technology to convert the waste into a synthetic gas; then the company will utilize various third-party technologies to transform the gas into a liquid fuel. The resulting synthetic fuel works like those produced from coal and natural gas that airlines already use and, unlike biofuels such as ethanol, can be used thousands of feet up in the air, Fast Company reported. Solena’s product is considered a “drop-in” fuel, meaning airlines can use it without modifying their plane engines or fueling infrastructure.

Solena says its fuel produced from garbage burns cleaner than crude-based jet fuels, with virtually no sulfur emissions, a minimal amount of particulate matter and lower nitrogen oxide emissions during plane take-off. While British Airways is starting off small with this project (it will source only about 2 percent of its total fuel from GreenSky), the airline hopes to increase the amount of trash-based jet fuel it uses over time, Fast Company reported.

Too good to be true?

Clean-burning jet fuel from trash–it almost sounds too good to be true. And it might just be, according to anti-incineration activists who say that the kind of gasification technology Solena uses is just incineration in disguise. Wherever you sit on the debate about waste-to-energy or waste-to-product facilities, we can all agree that the GreenSky facility and Solena’s jet fuel will have environmental impacts, and it’s unclear, without further study, if this project is the most sustainable solution.

The jury is still out on which waste management method emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions: a landfill releasing the potent greenhouse gas methane as garbage decomposes or a gasification facility that produces carbon emissions as it converts waste to a product. Different studies come to various conclusions–usually in favor of the opinion of the report’s funders. Either way, we can’t be sure if GreenSky’s carbon footprint would be smaller than the amount of methane produced if the garbage was sent to the local landfill.

Like other incineration-like facilities, GreenSky will most likely produce a waste byproduct called fly ash that typically contains high concentrations of toxic metals from products like batteries and paints that end up in the waste stream. Solena Fuels’ CEO Robert Do told Fast Company that recyclables like bottles, glass and cans will be sorted out of the waste stream coming to GreenSky, but even with the best efforts of residents or waste management workers, it’s nearly impossible to extract every possible contaminant in the garbage that could result in toxic residue.

Anti-incineration advocates also point out that incinerators and gasification facilities undermine local recycling programs, essentially competing for the same feedstock.

“London has a very strong recycling program, so the waste all goes into a recycling center first,” Do said. “Everything that can be recycled–bottles, glass, cans–will be recycled. The material that’s left over, that would normally go to a landfill, that’s the stuff they take to our plant.”

Do and Solena seem supportive of London’s recycling efforts now, but what would happen if the city ramps up its waste reduction efforts or adopts a zero waste goal?

While it’s encouraging that British Airways is thinking outside the box to reach its sustainability goals, the airline might have missed the mark on the best ways to reduce waste and cut carbon emissions.

Image credit: British Airways

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.