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Here’s one thing we know: Waste-to-energy (WTE) initiatives continue to take hold in North America and are beginning to catch up to what is common in Europe.

Andrew White, chief executive officer of CHAR Technologies, a company that commercializes and sells hydrogen sulfide recovery systems to solve the problem caused by toxic and corrosive hydrogen sulfide in the biogas industry, sees at least two drivers for this in North America.

The first driver is the regulatory changes diverting waste from landfills. As White explained, the European Union has a landfill tax on waste that makes WTE cost competitive. Similar legislation is taking hold in some jurisdictions in North America.

“For example, in Ontario, a new statute, Waste Free Ontario Act, is focused on diverting waste from landfills,” White said. “Regulations that provide the details on how waste must be diverted from landfills have yet to be released but there is speculation that they may include landfill bans on specific wastes or possibly taxes similar to Europe.”

The second driver in the growth of WTE is the GHG trading program. As WTE generates significantly less GHG than landfilling, companies that divert waste from landfills and dispose of it by WTE, may be in a position to generate GHG credits that they can sell to off-set the cost of waste management.

“In our view, the increased interest in WTE is a result of North America catching up with Europe on the view that WTE is the fourth ‘R’ (recovery of energy) after reduction, re-use and recycling,” White said. “Some studies have shown the WTE is becoming much more cost competitive versus landfilling when several factors are included such as long-term liabilities, GHG impacts, transportation impacts, and energy recovery.”

CHAR Technologies’ WTE process is a patent process that takes a low value material (anaerobic digestate – the solids that remain after anaerobic digestion) and turn it into a high value product (activated carbon).

“We sell the activated carbon to renewable natural gas companies (i.e., landfills and anaerobic digestion facilities) as a means of removing hydrogen sulfide (H2S) from the biogas prior to burning it to produce heat and/or electricity,” White said. “We buy back the spent activated carbon from our customers and resell it as a soil amendment product. Hence we have two revenue streams.”

The pyrolysis process that CHAR Technologies’ uses to produce activated carbon from anaerobic digestate is net energy positive. The heat produced by burning the syngas is can be used in the pyrolysis process with extra heat that can be used for heating other buildings or generating electricity.

 “We are taking a low value byproduct from the anaerobic digestion process and turning it to a high value product that can be sold twice—first as a means of removing H2S from renewable natural gas and secondly as a soil amendment product,” White said. “The bonus to the process, is that it is net energy positive so excess syngas can be utilized for other purposes.”

Daniel de Liege, chairman of Alliance Bio-Products, and his team have developed a unique patented cellulose to sugar (CTS) process, which transforms agricultural, residential and commercial waste into sugars used for the production of biofuels and other products. As such, de Liege understands the ever-evolving landscape of WTE within the waste and recycling industries.

“Typically, companies overlook the green waste,” de Liege said. “Everyone has been processing metals, plastics and MSW but when it comes to green waste its either filling up the landfill, being burned or chipped into mulch.”

Green waste makes up billions of tons of material that can be used in a variety of ways. Through Alliance Bio-Products’ cellulose-to-sugar (CTS) process, it can be used to create biofuels (ethanol, diesel and jet fuel), bioplastics that can start breaking down within weeks of disposal and a very long list of fine chemicals, usually made with petroleum products.

“Waste is abundant and is usually low cost or no cost as a feedstock,” de Liege said. “Waste doesn’t require lands to grow it on, special equipment or processes to gather, nor does it produce any additional Co2 or environmental impact in creating it.”

De Liege believes the sector will continue to grow as governments around the globe are realizing that growing or making feedstocks for bioproducts is just as damaging as using petroleum based materials.  

“We own the exclusive worldwide rights to the patented CTS process,” de Liege said. “This is the only known process for converting virtually all cellulose material into its base components of sugars and lignin. It does this without enzymes, liquid acids, applied heat or pressure. Because of this the economics of making a gallon of cellulosic ethanol, for instance, is better than anything on the market, including gasoline. In fact, our production cost on a gallon of ethanol is $0.91. That is equivalent to $18 a barrel of oil, something we haven’t seen in a long time.”

At Alliance Bio-Products they will be introducing the CTS process to the world by converting an existing bioethanol plant into a CTS cellulosic ethanol plant. By the end of 2018 the first commercial plant will be up and running producing the cleanest, lowest cost fuel available today.

“This will change the way all biofuels are made and evaluated,” de Liege said.

Continuous Innovations

The WTE industry continues to innovate. For example, at Covanta, they have developed and deployed technology that continues to improve the environmental performance and increase the amount of material they can recycle. Recently Covanta developed LN (Low NOx), a system that enables existing WTE facilities to reduce nitrogen oxides emissions by half. In 2014, the Montgomery County, Maryland, resource recovery facility, operated by Covanta, received the prestigious Clean Air Technology Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for upgrading its emissions control with LN technology.

“On metals recycling, we have continued to increase the amount of material we recover and improve the quality of our product,” said James Regan, director of communications at Covanta. “After combustion takes place in our WTE facilities, we are able to recover over 500,000 tons of both ferrous and nonferrous metals from the remaining ash. This amount is enough steel to build more than five Golden Gate Bridges and sufficient aluminum for manufacturing more than two billion beverage cans.”

Regan pointed to the absence of meaningful sustainable waste, energy or climate policy initiatives at the federal level – similar to those enacted by the European Union – as the reason there has not been a persistent, meaningful increase in the construction of new WTE infrastructure in the U.S.
“Outside the U.S., there are many opportunities for new facilities because of supportive policies that discourage landfilling and encourage sustainable waste management,” Regan said.

Covanta’s state-of-the-art metals processing operation in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania cleans and sorts metal materials recovered from Covanta’s WTE facilities.

In 2015, Covanta opened a facility to clean and sort ferrous metal for recycling. This year, the company added a new nonferrous facility that uses advanced equipment and technology to recover and sort even the smallest fragments of valuable nonferrous metals like aluminum, brass and copper from the waste stream. The nonferrous material is cleaned and separated by size, density and metal type, creating a higher-value recycled metal product.

“In addition, we have developed a way to recover, clean and sort coins,” Regan said.

According to Regan, WTE will continue to grow because of the following benefits:

•WTE facilities provide sustainable, safe waste disposal that complements recycling. The U.S. wastes 7.5 million tons of metal in landfills each year that could be recovered at WTE facilities and used to build 90 Golden Gate Bridges annually.
•WTE facilities produce clean, reliable energy and steam 24/7. The power is complementary to other intermittent renewables that rely on the weather.
•WTE facilities are net reducers of greenhouse gases, offsetting methane from landfills and CO2 from fossil fuel power plants. Recycling metal and avoiding emissions from the long-distance transport of waste also reduces greenhouse gases.

On the Horizon

Industry experts believe that specialized WTE facilities will take hold in the future. You just need to look at the number of innovative companies in the WTE sector that have various versions of pyrolysis, gasification, thermal depolymerization, etc.

“Each one of these new processes have a niche that they fit into,” White said. “We see the move toward these smaller, specialty systems that may handle one specific waste stream or be on site at a facility to eliminate the need for off-site transportation and management of the waste.”

Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions in the U.S., government regulation has not caught up with the newer approaches of “waste-to-product.”

“The new clean tech companies are caught off guard when they find out they need to apply for an waste processing permit before beginning commercial operations,” White said. “In their view, the government regulation view of ‘waste’ is antiquated.”
Indeed, in the U.S. the biggest hurdle to WTE is that there is no uniformity between cities and states as to which direction various efforts should go.

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing as numerous technologies get tried and implemented,” de Liege said. “The downside is that sometimes the technologies that work get gobbled up by large companies that want a competitive edge and therefore they aren’t deployed broadly. Europe is really making strides in eliminating the ‘growing’ of feedstocks and focusing on waste products.”

Certain regions of the world, such as parts of Europe and Asia, embrace WTE and maintain public policy that supports its widespread adoption.
In the U.S. industry players are seeing a shift in how many businesses and industries are now striving for sustainability and reducing their environmental footprint – including waste and recycling.

“We work with them to find solutions to recycle as much as possible and utilize WTE over landfilling as the more sustainable choice to handle what material remains,” Regan said. “The WTE industry will continue to be an important part of sustainable waste management as the U.S. grows more aware of the negative short and long-term effects of landfills.”

Published in the September 2017 Edition of American Recycler News