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Tina Casey headshot

For Waste Management, Coal Ash Disposal + Food Waste Recycling = Jobs, Jobs, Jobs


New coal ash disposal regulations are slowly winding their way through the approval process, but leading U.S. waste company Waste Management (WM) is not letting any grass grow under its feet. WM is already betting the ranch that new regulations for coal ash disposal will result in a major opportunity to grow its business and create new jobs.

As a corollary to seeking new coal ash disposal opportunities, WM is also transitioning into a new, more efficient business model for its municipal waste disposal operations, particularly in the area of food waste recycling. Because of the sheer size of the company, this dual move into coal ash disposal and food waste recycling demonstrates a job-creating potential that will counterbalance the "job-killing" criticism routinely leveled at new EPA regulations.

New EPA regulations for coal ash disposal

For those of you new to the topic, coal power plants in the U.S. generate about 140 million tons of coal ash (aka fly ash) annually. Under current regulations most of it is disposed in open, unlined pits or lagoons. The chickens from this decades-long practice have started coming home to roost. Starting with the massive 2008 Emory River coal ash spill in Tennessee there has been a string of coal ash spills, most recently in North Carolina's Dan River.

In 2010, the EPA issued proposed new coal ash disposal rules. The new rules have been meandering slowly (very slowly) through the process until earlier this year, when a consent decree forced the EPA to set a Dec. 19 deadline for a coal ash disposal rule that would categorize coal ash as a nonhazardous waste.

While the new rule does not address all of the problems with current practice, it will likely require coal ash producers to dispose coal ash in engineered landfills. It also leaves the door wide open for coal ash recycling into bricks and other products (the lawsuit that resulted in the consent decree was brought by stakeholders in the coal combustion products sector).

Waste Management and coal ash

WM's recent interest in coal ash disposal was brought to light by Bloomberg.com earlier this month. In an interview with reporters Harry R. Weber and Jack Kaskey, CEO David Steiner predicted "big growth" for the company once the new rule takes effect.

Waste Management is a massive company with a yearly waste stream of about 100 million tons, and the potential coal ash disposal market (the aforementioned 140 million tons annually) is even more than that. Even if you take into account the long decline of coal-to-energy in the U.S., the coal ash disposal market would still be a significant growth factor for WM.

WM and waste-to-energy

In the interview, Steiner also touched on WM's recent decision to shed its municipal waste-to-energy business.

That decision was announced in July, with the sale of the WM's wholly-owned subsidiary Wheelabrator to Energy Capital Partners.  Wheelabrator has 21 garbage incinerators and other facilities with a combined generating capacity of 853 megawatts. WM will continue to haul waste to the facilities.

When the deal was announced, Steiner had this to say about WM's transition to a new energy profile in a press release:

"This transaction aligns with our goal of driving shareholder value by maximizing our focus on our core business and reducing earnings volatility related to electricity sales."

Steiner also noted that instead of just churning money from the Wheelabrator sale back into the company's financial profile, the $1.94 billion sale will enable WM to drive shareholder value by acquiring new assets.

Given the company's newfound interest in coal ash disposal, we're guessing that's one area in which the proceeds from the Wheelabrator sale will be put to use.

WM and next-generation food waste-to-energy recycling

Another area that WM could focus on is the food waste recycling sector.

Steiner hinted at that during the Bloomberg interview, when he mentioned that the company intends to stick with its landfill-gas-to-energy business. Those operations currently produce in the range of 400 megawatts of electricity.

Steiner also mentioned that the company sees growth in small acquisitions, and in the business of consulting governments and other entities on waste reduction.

Put all that together and you have a potential growth area in next-generation food waste-to-energy recycling.

Conventional food waste-to-energy operations involve reclaiming organic material that is mixed with other municipal waste, as in landfill gas recovery or garbage-to-electricity incinerators.

The next generation ramps it up by separating food waste for gas recovery. That type of operation is already going on at a relatively small scale, one example being a recent collaboration between the Cleveland Browns and InSinkErator's Grind2Energy operation.

WM has already started exploring the food waste-to-biogas concept on a far larger scale, in a pilot project that partners the company with the city of New York and National Grid. The aim for NYC is to reduce its solid waste disposal costs while National Grid boosts its clean energy profile.

Announced last year, the new food waste recovery operation adds a new twist to food scrap recycling. The partnership deploys WM's proprietary food waste pre-processing technology to reduce food scraps to a slurry. The bioslurry is then added to existing biogas digesters at the city's Newtown Creek municipal wastewater treatment plant.

So far the pilot project seems to have exceeded projections. The company's current bioslurry operation is running at about 2 tons daily, and according to recent reports the operation will be ramped up to 50 tons daily this fall.

With a capacity of 250 tons daily for the bioslurry operation, it sure looks like WM is on safe ground betting on more growth -- and more jobs -- as the combination of new federal regulations and new market demands drive the company into new energy-related fields.

Image credit: By David Goehring

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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