Seeking Treasure in the Trash: Waste to Energy

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Joan Walsh, Mark Draper, Kevin Roche and Abbie Webb speak on a panel hosted by E2Tech in June 2014 photo by Kay MannOn June 26, 2014, The Environmental and Energy Technology Council (E2Tech) hosted a forum about the solid waste hierarchy and waste-to-energy (WTE) options in Maine. Green Energy Maine was there and brings you this report.

Maine's solid waste management hierarchy classifies the preferred method for trash diversion based on its environmental footprint and function as a resource. The Maine DEP considers the use of landfills to be "an option of last resort" and prioritizes reducing, reusing, recycling, composting or anaerobic digestion, and waste-to-energy incineration as trash management preferences. Today's landfills can be used for photovoltaic solar generation sites, landfill gas to energy, redevelopment for parks and commercial use and materials recycling. And, converting trash to energy can reduce its volume by up to 90 percent while generating electricity.

The Environmental & Natural Resources Committee of the Maine Legislature has been grappling with the waste hierarchy to address electricity cost issues that could impact the financial viability of Maine’s waste-to-energy and landfill facilities. This panel examined business scenarios under Maine’s waste hierarchy and how they fit within the policy and permitting framework.

E2Tech board member Jim Katsiafikas of Perkins Thompson introduced the topic by giving us some background information:

In 1989,the legislature passed a solid waste management act that established a state agency to manage solid waste. It also established a hierarchy of steps for treatment of waste, as follows:

waste to energy

[Picture this list in an inverted triangle and you will see that the goal is to reduce as much as possible and to landfill as little as possible.] Maine generated 2.5 million tons of solid waste in 2012. This policy has been reviewed in 2013. Many municipalities in Maine have been closing landfills and building solid waste handling facilities. Waste-to-energy plants can reduce the volume of waste by 80% or more while generating electricity.

Joan Welsh, Co Chair of the Environmental & Natural Resources Committee of the Maine Legislature photo by Kay MannWASTE POLICY

The morning's first panelist to speak was Rep. Joan Welsh, Maine Legislature, Co-Chair of the Environmental & Natural Resources Committee (ENR).

Term limits make it so that legislators learn a lot about certain topics, such as solid waste management, and then have to leave and let new legislators take over and begin to learn all over again.

The Maine Material Management Plan is put out by the DEP and is a good document for all to know about. It focuses largely on the top tier of the solid waste hierarchy, especially reduction and reuse. The plan is trying to change the culture of a throwaway society to one that is more conscious of the long-term effects of our behaviors.

The committee has agreed to keeping the hierarchy and putting it into statute as a required part of the permitting process. Our recycling rate is 39% statewide and our goal is 50%.

Some of the challenges are:
Educating the public to change behaviors.
Pricing structures: it is more expensive to recycle than to landfill.
Geographical challenges exist for the rural areas that are at a great distance from waste processing facilities.

There is a large outcry from municipalities against adding fees to landfills for various materials. The Maine Municipal Association is doing good work to assist municipalities as they grapple with waste management issues. The ENR committee has toured all of the waste management facilities in the state and they all have impressive operations.

Looking into the future, the ENR committee supports the report from the DEP and looks forward to a zero waste society.

Mark Draper  Solid Waste Director of Tri Community Recycling and Sanitary Landfill serving Caribou Fort Fairfield and Limestone Maine photo by Kay MannA PLACE FOR LANDFILLING

The second panelist was Mark Draper, Solid Waste Director of Tri-Community Recycling and Sanitary Landfill, serving Caribou, Fort Fairfield and Limestone.

Draper spoke about the role of landfills in integrated solid waste management systems. This landfill serves a population of 35,000, which is half the population of Aroostoock County. The landfill handled nearly 26,000 tons of solid waste from this region last year.

When you go from an unlined, attenuation landfill to a lined, secure landfill, costs increase exponentially. Landfills are a common component of integrated waste management systems nationwide. Today's landfills are not the dumps of yesteryear, yet the four-letter word is still used colloquially to describe advanced solid waste facilities. The adjustable scale of newer landfills allows for flexibility; they are built as lined cells so that as design improvements are made, they can be incorporated.

The waste management hierarchy is a great tool for public awareness, a public policy guideline and a worthy goal in general. It is not a one size fits all mandate that works well in all parts of Maine. Waste to energy is a great option for regions with dense populations, higher waste generation and a lack of suitable landfill locations. In rural, sparsely-populated regions, a secure landfill may be the better option. If planning and goal setting were to be done regionally instead of statewide, it might be more appropriate.

As solid waste disposal is a municipal service, municipal managers must select the best option for that municipality; this may be a mix of private and public options. Cost reduction is important, and for this reason it is important to focus on the upper levels of the hierarchy.

The Maine Municipal Association and Maine Resource Recovery Association have partnered together to find common ground and identify ways that they can work together.

Kevin Roche General Manager and CEO of ecomaine in Portland Maine photo by Kay MannTHE LONG VIEW

The third panelist to speak was Kevin Roche, General Manager and CEO of ecomaine, a 550 ton-per-day recycling plant. ecomaine has 52 member communities and operates 3 facilities in Portland.

The solid waste industry has found that many facilities are trying to pull waste in their direction indiscriminately because this is where their revenue comes from. It is important that we ensure that waste is going to the most appropriate places. While we need landfills, they are not the best practice. We have lost sight of landfill diversion over the past 10-15 years. Landfilling is a waste storage method. In a recent test of 22-year-old landfilled waste, we found potato chips in a bag, chicken breasts that looked like they were fresh off the grill and a newspaper from 1992 that was wet but legible.

Education and outreach is very important; ecomaine is encouraging groups to tour its facilities. It is also important for communities to like their solid waste facilities, so managers like ecomaine are reaching out and showing their operations transparently.

Recycling markets fluctuate every year. It does not always make economic sense to recycle low end plastics, if they have to be shipped a great distance to be recycled. Items like carpets, mattresses, and styrofoam are best put into the waste-to-energy (WTE) plant.

Fully 40% of the waste stream is organic. It is tough to burn lettuce. Intervention is needed in order to separate organics from the waste stream.

Over the past 10 years, the overall waste stream has been reduced by 30% by weight. This is better than anticipated.

WTE is volume reduction: 90% less waste gets buried. The process makes the waste more suitable for landfilling (as ash). Metals can be recovered from ash landfills.

Most significantly, WTE generates ten times the energy as does landfill gas-to-energy. WTE provides a steady power generation source that is not dependent on the sun or wind.

Electrical rates have fluctuated between $40-70$ per megawatt hour. ecomaine has been operating without a subsidy since 1991. The long-term debt of ecomaine was retired last year and their assessments to member communities will be eliminated in July of 2015.

The easiest way to reduce rates today would be to shut down the WTE plant but this is not a good long term solution. Good solid waste planing and policy has to include landfill diversion. The next generation will appreciate solid waste policy that is less filling.

It is important to address the problem of trucking waste over long distances. This is not a sustainable solution.

Abbie Webb Sustainability Manager for Casella Waste Systems photo by Kay MannA MULTI-PRONGED APPROACH

The final speaker was Abbie Webb, Sustainability Manager, Casella Waste Systems. Webb's presentation was about resource solutions and the waste management hierarchy.

Webb presented a slightly different EPA hierarchy updated in 2012:
source reduction and reuse
recycling and composting
energy recovery
treatment and disposal

An alternative waste hierarchy courtesy of the US EPA

Source: EPA.

Casella operates 9 active landfills; Webb invites the public to come and visit Juniper Ridge. There is a lot more gas being captured now than before, for landfill gas-to-energy (LGTE)plants. It must be captured, removed and either flared off or used.

All landfill gas is biogenic, not fossil fuel-based, which is important from a carbon calculation perspective.

The Pine Tree landfill in Hampton, NH has a 3.2 MW LGTE plant. They also have a 12 acre PV array in their landfill in Coventry, VT. There is an award-winning geothermal project at their facility in Bethlehem, NH, which captures 70-degree heat for their onsite shop.

Casella operates 5 zero-sort recycling facilities; the 6th one is being built in Lewiston. This enables public space recycling, making recycling containers available in public buildings, sidewalks, parks, events, etc. Yet a third bin may soon be added for organic food wastes.

On the organics side, Casella is recycling over 400,000 tons per year, returning nutrients to the soil. Municipal biosolids, wood ash, short paper fiber, mineral byproducts and food processing residuals. There is a Hawk Ridge compost facility in Unity that transforms municipal biosolids into high quality soil products for crops, nurseries and landscaping.

Casella has partnered in an anaerobic digester system at a farm in Rutland, MA. It converts cow manure and food processing residuals into energy and fertilizer. Food scraps for this plant are being collected in CT, MA and NY .

Casella Resource Solutions is the "geek squad" of waste, offering a full suite of resource management (RM) services: hauling, recycling, composting and disposal.

Gain /Share resource management contracting aligns both parties to benefit equally. Drivers are consumer demand, environmental awareness and energy and commodity markets.

The waste hierarchy is most useful when it offers flexibility, practicality and focus on spending greater time and resources on the top tier of the hierarchy. It is important to do well on every tier.


Q: If we have recyclables and organics in separate trucks, we are putting more trucks on the road. Some interventions are incompatible with the vision of reducing the number of trucks on the road.
Roche: Many cities are reducing the number of collection trips from once per week to once every 2 weeks. What is not sustainable is to ship waste over long distances.

Q: How can we be assured that all of the materials we put into recycling bins get recycled?
Roche: About 7-8% of what is sent to recycling facilities cannot be recycled. Of the material that is acceptable, please visit the facility to see where it goes.

Q: What about revenues?
Roche: ecomaine has moved 40,000 tons of material from the landfill to the WTE plant. This was not the right thing to do economically at first, but it has been long term. We cannot profit from putting waste into the ground.

Q: The word, "incinerator" won't go away. Today's WTE plants are not incinerators. Why not ensure that energy pants receive an appropriate rate for the energy they generate?
Welsh: The Environmental and Natural Resources committee is going to talk more with the Energy and Utilities committee about this.

Q: As to the organics side of Casella: what is being successful?
Webb: We are at the beginning of this journey and the demand is there. We anticipate increasing the volume of organics collection; there are cool systems that can be implemented to collect these without increasing truck traffic.
Most of the waste we generate in the US is pre-consumer, industrial waste. Casella handles a million tons of this per year. The system must be retooled so that these wastes are not generated in the first place. 

To see more events in the E2Tech forums series look here.