March 12, 2010

Working together for MSW energy recovery

SCWMF meeting attendees (left to right): Dr. Kay Martin, Chip Clements, Coby Skye, Rick Brandes, Tobie Mitchell, and Jim Stewart (11/2009 by Scott Miller)

Last November the Southern California Waste Management Forum (SCWMF) met at its 38th annual meeting to discuss future directions for municipal solid waste management in the region. 2010 is an important year because time is running out before the 2013 closure of Southern California's largest landfill (Puente Hills). This is also the year that AB 222 will be reviewed by the Environmental Quality Committee before proceeding onto the California Senate floor for a vote. Without passage of AB 222 local municipalities will have fewer options for deploying regional solutions to the state's strict recycling and landfill diversion mandates.

Speaking eloquently on this occasion about the dichotomy of competing camps and the need for collaborative and regional decision-making was William ("Rick") Brandes from the U.S. EPA in Washington, DC. Rick has recently retired from his position as Chief of the Energy Recovery and Waste Disposal Branch, Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery.

His presentation was titled "EPA and Energy Recovery from Wastes." He talked about the polarized stances that have formed over the energy recovery issue and the need for the two camps to come together. He pointed out that increasing climate change concerns have forced analysis of comprehensive mitigation strategies for which energy recovery is evolving as a major player. "Increased recycling and energy recovery provide significant greenhouse gas emissions savings," he asserted.

He pointed out that in Europe population density and lack of open land has convinced policymakers of the need to enable utilities to deploy energy recovery and centralized heating and power (CHP) systems. The emphasis there is on substituting waste-to-energy facilities for landfills. These facilities are situated within the communities they serve without toxic impacts on surrounding populations. In fact, as his graphic shows below, the countries with the most comprehensive recycling programs are also the ones that use incineration the most.

This logic seems to be an affront to some recycling and "zero waste" proponents who argue against energy recovery using thermochemical means no matter what the emissions profile is.

In this month's MSW Management magazine, Rick Brandes admonishes those who refuse to recognize that solutions are regional and require cooperative effort to achieve. Below are some excerpts from this article.

March-April 2010
Cooperation, Not Conflict: Municipal Solid Waste Management in the 21st Century

By Rick Brandes

Having recently retired after 31 years working on waste management regulations and policy at the US Environmental Protection Agency, I’d like to voice a massive frustration on the state of municipal solid waste management policy in this country.

In one camp are the “zero wasters.” They see a world where real integrated materials management means all materials are contained in a continuous use/reuse cycle: organics to composting and soil enhancement, recyclables returned to use either in closed or open loop recycling systems, metals and glass back to new metals and new glass, and paper back into paper. They see the public as ready for a massive change to a more sustainable lifestyle, trashwise. And, incineration is viewed as the enemy of zero waste, not a complement.

In the other camp are the “energy recoverers.” They see a practical, realistic world, where real integrated materials management is driven by market forces, where recycling occurs when it makes market sense and energy is recovered from the bulk of the remainder of the non-recyclable municipal wastestream through mass-burn incineration or advanced thermochemical conversion. They see it as a decision on whether to landfill or recover energy, not whether to incinerate or recycle. They see the public as most likely to do what they are currently doing—and that doesn’t include a big change in lifestyle, trashwise.

It’s not like there are no alternative strategies. There are many, many ways to beneficially use this trash mountain of ours. Augment soil. Generate power. Make paper and save trees. Reduce bauxite mining. Recover even more metal out of the ash. Make park benches and roads. Produce ethanol and biodiesel. Use all alternatives where they make sense. Use different waste management strategies in different places. Do more of some of these things in some places and less of them in other places. But don’t editorially gun people down when they don’t do what you think they should do. Give communities the best available information, and they will probably do what is best for them. Let them make their trash more valuable.

About the only thing we can say right now is that there exists a massive lack of consensus on what constitutes an effective integrated materials management strategy. That has to change.

For the complete article, click here

I will be speaking about this and sustainable supplies of rural biomass during the Opening Session of the Waste-to-Fuels Conference in Jacksonville, FL April 18-20.


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