Energy & Environment

The Used-Food Market

With oil prices jumping, local governments may want to take another look at turning into energy material their garbage trucks pick up every day.
by | October 2005

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Kay Martin spent 17 years directing the Ventura County, California, agency that makes sure garbage is disposed of safely. Martin went beyond that, setting up a countywide recycling market-development zone and diverting 50 percent of the county's waste from landfills. But she wasn't content to stop there.

With as much as 65 percent of the remaining waste stream composed of paper, food, wood, vegetation and other organic materials, Martin saw an opportunity: Turn leftover biomass into a continuously renewed resource that could replace oil and natural gas for supplying fuel and biochemical products. "Anything that can be made out of petroleum can be made out of living plant matter, or biomass," she says. So, she crafted plans to develop a bioenergy complex in Ventura County to show how local governments could take full advantage of material that municipal garbage trucks collect on a weekly basis. Five years ago, she persuaded Ventura County supervisors to partner with farmers and fledgling biofuel companies to process agricultural byproducts and organic municipal trash for generating energy and supply "biorefineries" with reliable feedstocks for clean-burning fuels and solvents, pesticides and other chemicals.

Martin retired a year ago, leaving government with many of her projects still on the drawing boards. She wasn't optimistic about their being realized. She concluded that in their zeal to promote curbside recycling programs, governments were throwing up roadblocks that were stalling worthwhile biomass projects, particularly those that would tap the municipal solid waste stream.

With oil prices jumping unpredictably these days, many governments may now be taking another look at that potential. A new federal energy law will boost incentives for ethanol and biodiesel fuels made from vegetable crops. Minnesota this year began requiring that diesel fuel contain 2 percent soybean or other vegetable oils. Around the country, nearly 400 landfills collect methane that decomposing trash gives off and then burn it to generate electricity or pipe the gas to nearby customers. An Antioch, Illinois, landfill, for instance, provides most of the power and heat for the local high school. In Ohio, the Franklin County landfill authority is building an $18 million Green Energy Center that will generate electricity, fuel the agency's vehicles with gas and manufacture methanol for industrial customers.

Many deals founder over funding. A University of California campus couldn't come up with funds to convert a power plant to burn gas from processed farm and yard wastes. The city council in Birmingham, Alabama, balked a few years back at a local businessman's plan to turn garbage and sewage sludge into ethanol. Middletown, New York, officials last year signed an ethanol deal with the same Alabama firm, but financing is still up in the air.

There are other hurdles. In Northern California, the Alameda city utility set aside a proposal to transform landfill waste into synthetic gas for generating electric power. Nearby communities had protested that a gasification plant would emit dioxins, mercury and other threatening byproducts.

Environmentalists also contend that conversion plants would hijack materials that should be recycled or composted. This spring, key Sacramento legislators held up confirmation for Rosalie Marin, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's nominee to chair the state Integrated Waste Management Board, until she disowned a state university report that recycling purists say ignored the potential environmental drawbacks from untested technologies. The Sierra Club and other recycling advocates are now fighting legislation to let governments count trash processed by bioenergy projects toward meeting California's landfill diversion mandate. Such a law would put waste conversion on equal footing with recycling and composting as preferred methods for keeping wastes out of landfills.

Bill Magavern, the California Sierra Club's waste specialist, says conversion proposals, especially those using high-temperature gasification and pyrolysis technologies, would be just as polluting as waste-to-energy incinerators that current state policies use as the last resort for trash disposal. But Kay Martin says the current regulatory structure denies conversion ventures the chance to demonstrate clean-burning technologies that would complement, not compete with, recycling efforts.

After retiring, Martin helped found an industry trade group that's pressing to clear away the regulatory obstacles. Technical and financial uncertainties remain, but sometimes the most formidable barrier to sensible environmental policy is politically established orthodoxy.


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