Turning Waste into Renewable Energy Treasure

By Wes Muir, director of communications, Waste Management

With Energy Awareness Month in full swing, it’s important to recognize all the ingredients of America’s renewable energy recipe. The potential for securing a more sustainable energy future in this country is boundless, and includes many moving pieces. This puzzle is heavily dependent on the available and developing energy technologies, such as wind and solar power that have dominated recent discussions about renewables. But one resource that is markedly missing from these conversations can be found right in your home – your trash.

Trash is an ever-present source, especially in the U.S. On average, Americans throw away 4.7 pounds of garbage each day – which equates to about 254 million tons of waste each year. While recycling and composting have proven to divert some of this waste, landfills and waste to energy remain necessary for housing the remaining waste that can’t be recycled – and using it to produce energy.

Every landfill creates methane-rich landfill gas from the decomposition of organic materials, such as paper, food scraps and wood. Many landfill operators simply flare the gas, but Waste Management has been using the gas to instead generate electricity, supply nearby industrial customers with an alternative fuel source as well as exploring new technologies to create transportation fuels for our fleets.

Landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) facilities turn landfills – and our daily waste – into a source of clean, renewable energy. According to the EPA, there were 480 operational LFGTE programs in the U.S. as of December 2008. These generate about 12 megawatts of electricity per year – for reference, the average power consumption of a typical American household over the course of a year is about 8,900 kilowatt-hours. Waste Management alone hosts LFGTE projects at more than 100 of its landfills, with the goal to develop an additional 60 projects by 2013. In expanding these projects, Waste Management will produce enough landfill gas to generate 700 megawatts of energy, enough to power nearly 700,000 homes.

Additionally, landfill gas can be used to create liquefied natural gas (LNG), a clean fuel for vehicles. Waste Management, in a joint venture with Linde North America, will soon create the world’s largest landfill gas to LNG facility in the world, capturing and reusing the gas to produce up to 13,000 gallons a day of transportation grade LNG to fuel the company’s fleet of natural gas powered trash and recycling trucks.

Generating power is only one positive byproduct of LFGTE projects. By capturing and converting the methane organically produced at landfills through the decomposition of waste into energy, LFGTE facilities can also greatly reduce methane and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and offsets the need for fossil fuels.

The waste we generate on a daily basis remains a sustainable, indigenous resource in this country, and can serve as an energy resource, even after it has reached the landfill. Amid the vast discussion of possible additions to America’s renewable energy portfolio, we’ve rarely seen any mention of one clear resource that, for the time being, is ever-present: our waste. While the development and use of LFGTE technology may not be the only path to energy independence, it’s certainly something to consider – and a piece of the sustainable energy puzzle that leaders in the waste management industry are finding impossible to overlook.

Wes Muir is Director of Corporate Communications for Waste Management, responsible for external communications and public affairs across North America including the development and management of strategies and programs in support of the company’s renewable energy, recycling and corporate development business groups, corporate branding/reputation and environmental sustainability initiative and media and social media.Prior to Waste Management, Wes was Director of Communications for the International Council on Mining and Metals responsible for the development and management of the global communications strategy in support of the industry’s sustainable development initiatives.Prior to this position, he was Director of Communications and Public Affairs for BHP Billiton Base Metals and its predecessor Rio Algom, an international mining company where he developed and managed the corporate communications and public affairs activities for the company’s domestic and international operations and projects.Wes has also held senior positions with public affairs and communications agencies in Canada and the United States providing communications counsel and support to a wide range of industry sectors including natural resources, environment, energy, financial, health and consumer products and services.

2 responses

  1. I’d be interested to hear how capital intensive LFGTE processes are for private businesses. It seems to me that it would only be worth the investment if the business already owns and operates a landfill. The concern here is this: is it really feasible for LFGTE to become a serious component in the portfolios of lots of energy companies? Or only those energy companies with a controlling stake in Landfill operations, which I believe are mostly operated by municipalities.

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