Reduce, Reuse and Rethink: Re-defining our goals for a waste management system

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

For the first time in my career, issues surrounding waste management have now become part of mainstream discussion. Whether it be my neighbors asking me “Can this really be recycled?” to growing concerns surrounding single use plastics, people (both the public and policy makers alike), care now more than ever regarding what is happening to our waste. We as Canadians recognize that issues surrounding waste require our immediate attention, and that our waste disposal behavior (both good and bad) can have significant impacts on the sustainability of our environment.

So with this in mind, I thought it would be prudent to revisit the topic of “What is the goal of our waste management system?” While this is a topic I have written about several times in the past, proposed legislative changes – not only to Ontario’s Blue Box program, but waste management legislation across North America, makes it a timely topic for discussion. Now, more than ever, we need to clearly define what our goals are, and whether our existing approaches are helping move us towards achieving those goals.

So, what is the goal of a waste management system? This seemingly simple question is actually surprisingly difficult to answer, as it depends on who you ask and what is being prioritized. While we may here terms like “Circular Economy” and “Zero waste” banded about, what do they actually mean? Are they intended to be aspirational or achievable goals? What is the time frame and the boundaries we use to define a circular system, and what do we choose to prioritize when different stakeholders have competing objectives? I am reluctant to answer these questions, as I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer other than – “it depends”: On who you ask, what you ask and why you ask. With that in mind, before proceeding with our discussion, I want to remind everyone about the three pillars of sustainability: A sustainable system must consider economic, environmental and social dimensions. By definition, we cannot consider a system sustainable if it does not address these three components. This is a critical consideration when deciding what a goal of a waste management system could (or should) be.

Ontario (and Canada) has a recycling problem

Historically, the emphasis of waste management has been on residential recycling. The Blue Box, a ubiquitous symbol of recycling that has been a fixture in our homes for the better part of four decades in Ontario. In fact, my very first memory as a budding environmentalist was washing out peanut butter jars before putting it in the recycling (less to do with concerns surrounding contamination, and more to do with a fear of attracting insects). For many Ontarians, the Blue Box is symbolic of recycling and sustainability, and it is something that we have been extraordinarily good at – which as it turns out, is actually a really bad thing.

During the summer of 2019, York University conducted a study to gauge what the public thought about various waste management initiatives. Participants were asked to rank, from best to worse, which end of life scenario resulted in the greatest environmental impact (shown in figure 1)

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From the above graph, recycling was seen as the most environmentally preferred option, with reuse second and waste reduction a very distant fourth place. Why does this matter? Because reduce, reuse, recycle isn’t just a catchy phrase – it is the order in which we are supposed to things. Recycling is our third most preferred option.

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Canada has become a victim of its own success – both households and policy makers now conflate recycling with sustainability. If it can’t be recycled, it is characterized as being “bad”. The “waste” problem is often framed as “We aren’t recycling enough”. Just last year, Deloitte made international headlines when they published a report indicating that Canada was only recycling 9% of its plastics. The response from the public was almost visceral – Households and government demanded change, with consumers even going so far as to say that they would be less likely to buy a product if it could not be recycled at the end of its life. Canadians are voting with their dollars and the message is loud and clear “We want recyclable products”.

While the sentiment and intent is in the right place, the approach is not. Not only is recycling not the most preferred outcome, it can actually have adverse economic, environmental and social impacts. Contrary to intuition – not everything that can be recycled, should be recycled. The decision to recycle everything, everywhere, is actually what is compromising the long term sustainability of the system.

Why the next diverted tonne will not (and should not) come from the Blue Box

As noted earlier, the residential recycling system (for printed paper and packaging) has been enormously successful, so much so that policy makers continue to put all of their eggs in one basket, and attempt to drive future diversion from this waste stream. The proposed Blue Box transition in Ontario, which shifts 100% of the physical/financial responsibility of managing the system on to producers, continues to emphasize and prioritize recycling based outcomes. Why this is problematic is threefold:

1)     We are already doing a great job of capturing the “low hanging fruit”. Recycling rates for core Blue Box materials (newsprint/OBB/OCC etc.) are already well in excess of 80%, and future increases in diversion are not likely to come from these materials

2)     The overall packaging mix is increasingly being made up of composite and light-weight materials that are extremely difficult to recycle given existing technology, infrastructure and end markets. If future increases in diversion come from these materials, the cost of recycling is potentially prohibitive.

3)     The environmental benefits associated with recycling many light weight and composite materials are negligible given existing processing technology.

In short, not all recycling is created equal. Figure 3 below summarizes the amount of money you would have to spend on recycling a given material, to abate one tonne of carbon ($/TCO2e).

Figure 3: 

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Using the above example, you would have to spend almost $1500 on recycling to abate one tonne of carbon from plastic film, and only $65 on recycling newsprint to achieve the same result. Let that sink in for a moment – Film is 23 times more expensive than newsprint from a carbon to recycling expenditure ratio.

To further drive home this point, please refer to Figure 4 below:

Figure 4

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Figure 4 shows the change in net system costs that results in a 1% change in the recycling rate, on a material by material basis.

If we wanted to increase the overall recycling rate of the Blue Box program by 1%, and we had to achieve it by increasing recycling of plastic laminates, overall system costs would increase by more than 14%.

Why this matters is that (as noted earlier), future increases in recycling rates are not going to come from core Blue Box materials. As a result of the changing nature of packaging over time (also referred to as the evolving tonne), increasing the Blue Box recycling rate will involve trying to collect and recycle materials such as composite and light weight plastics. To increase Ontario’s Blue Box recycling rate to 70% by recycling composite/light weight plastics (which is about 6% higher than our current recycling rate), we would have to spend in excess of $70 million dollars – and that is assuming that we have capacity within the existing system and end markets to accommodate increased recovery.

This is both prohibitively expensive, and has questionable environmental benefits. Once again, we are forced to ask ourselves, what is the goal of our waste management system? Increasingly, that answer is not going to be about increasing recycling rates, particularly for printed paper and packaging.

This begs two questions: 1) If the next diverted tonne shouldn’t come from the Blue Box, where should it come from? And 2)  If light weight and composite packaging is so terrible, why do we continue to use it?

As for where our next diverted tonne will come from, please refer to: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/where-our-next-diverted-tonne-come-from-diversion-calvin-lakhan-ph-d/

The second question is a bit trickier, as there is a subjective element to how you choose to evaluate the merits of a particular packaging type. Why a producer makes the packaging decisions they do is largely a function of economics and safety – some factors include: Does the packaging I use make it safe to transport materials, protect the product, avoid spoilage or contamination, increase shelf life, increase the number of units I can place on the shelf/in the store, allow for easy brand recognition etc.

The increased adoption of light weight packaging can be attributed to the benefits of durability, transport and ease of consumption, while also allowing for a reduction in overall packaging used. Interestingly, when taking a life cycle approach, the environmental impact of light weight and composite packaging can actually result in superior environmental outcomes when compared to conventional packaging. This may seem counter intuitive, given the relatively low recyclability of these materials, but upstream benefits (packaging reduction, logistical efficiencies when transporting materials, avoided food waste/spoilage, discretionary consumption etc.), actually outweigh whatever you lose from not recycling that material.

All things being equal, the recyclability of a package his historically ranked as a relatively low priority for producers.

In a 2017 study conducted by the university examining the relationship between packaging fee rates, and packaging recycling performance, there was no statistically significant correlation between the two. Even for products such as paper laminates and plastic film, where the corresponding fee was significantly higher than all other materials, recycling rates remained largely unchanged, or did so in response to broader macro market conditions. The price signal sent by the fee, was insufficient to change packaging choices.

With that being said, the optics surrounding whether a package can be recycled (and more broadly, diverted) has now become a key issue for producers, and increasingly, you are seeing brand owners talk about solutions for how to recycle their products. The rise in prominence of organizations such as Terracycle speak to just how important “recyclability” has become for consumers. We have spent the better part of 40 years inundating the public with the message “recycling is good for the environment” and attempting to change that narrative is extraordinarily difficult. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the government is continuing to develop policy that prioritizes recycling as a preferred end of life option. Between consumer demand and government legislation, producers face the daunting task of trying to recycle the unrecyclable, and in doing so, incurring a bill that is experiencing double digit percentage increases in recycling system costs year over year.

The importance of a socially sustainable waste management system

Historically, waste management (at least in a Canadian context), has not been seen through the lens of social sustainability – somewhat of a surprise, given how socio-economic inequality manifests itself in the form of impeded access, awareness and exposure to waste. Much of the existing academic research on environmental justice has been on the unequal distribution of environmental hazards and benefits along racialized lines, where there are consistent indications that waste facilities and waste related hazards are disproportionally located in lower income areas (or those predominated by minorities).

In all fairness, the connection between waste management and socio-economic inequality is not something that is top of mind for most policy makers. Generally speaking, there is an idea that a municipality will provide waste management services to a particular area, support that initiative through a combination of promotion and education efforts, and hope for sustained public participation. However, the costs of service delivery, the means and mediums of engagement, service accessibility and affordability vary widely, even within the same city.

Economic Exclusion

Taking a step back for a moment, I want to share with you three brief anecdotes that capture how seemingly oblivious our waste management system is with respect to social sustainability. These are actual conversations I have had with people in my day to day life

1)     “Consumers should purchase fewer packaged goods and opt for things like fresh produce instead of getting something shipped to us from half way across the world”.

2)     “We don’t need to use plastic film anymore, consumers can go out and buy reusable beeswax clingwrap”

3)     “Packaging programs focused on reuse (Loop) are going to be revolutionary and cut back on the amount of packaging waste we generate”

All of these are valid observations… but not necessarily ones that are realistic for many households. What people can and choose to purchase is largely a function of economics –those of us that have the luxury of being conscientious consumers, can shop locally and avoid pre-packaged goods. However, it is important to recognize that the ability to do so is a luxury – in a focus group conducted of more than 1800 consumers in the Greater Toronto earlier this year, more than 80% of respondents indicated that price was the primary determinant for making a purchase. If possible, respondents indicated that they would like to make more sustainable purchases, but budgetary restraints largely impeded them from doing so.

More than 60% of respondents also indicated that they did not have the ability to travel outside of a 5km range to make daily purchases, and often shopped at specific retailers because of a mix of multiple factors such as: convenience, price, familiarity and purchasing agglomeration (one stop shopping). In a 2019 analysis of consumer purchasing preferences in the Greater Toronto Area, households characterized as “low income” (household income less than $40,000 per year) consumed 18.4% more pre-packaged goods (namely grains, produce and frozen meats), when compared to families whose household income exceeded $100,000 a year. There is an inverse, statistically significant correlation between household income and % of prepackaged foodstuff of overall weekly purchases.

The expectation that households have the ability to readily switch between products based on packaging type doesn’t appear to be a realistic one. People might like the idea of Loop or beeswax and want to engage in more sustainable consumption, but at present, they are priced out of “taking part”.

A perhaps more insidious impact on consumers is the potential impacts to their cost of living attributable to increases in recycling system costs. As noted above, the costs of operating our recycling system are rapidly increasing, and these costs are ultimately born by consumers. In both late 2019 and early 2020, York University conducted research to better understand the link between an increase in basket of goods costs and increases in the steward obligation. While I have received many critiques and questions pertaining to how prices for packaged goods change in response to changes in the steward obligation (see post script for explanation), our research showed that consumer basket of goods prices increased by 6-12% (depending on locality). The economic and social impacts of this are potentially enormous, as lower income families are disproportionately affected by increases in packaging costs. As stated earlier, they purchase more prepackaged goods as a proportion of their overall purchases when compared to high income families.

While the ultimate intent of producer responsibility is to have the generator bare the financial costs of end of life management, the magnitude of those impacts is relative to the consumer’s ability to absorb them. As such, when we ask ourselves “What should the goal of a waste management system be?”, it is imperative that we also give thought to “How do we account of social sustainability?”. A focus on recycling/diversion based outcomes paints an incomplete picture of a much more complex and nuanced problem. What good is a circular economy if not everyone can participate or benefit from it?

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink

I will go on record and say that I think if we pursue an approach premised on prioritizing recycling above all else, it will be destined for failure. Shifting financial responsibility onto producers will not magically fix what is broken, and I think it naive to assume the financial incentive will result in fundamental shifts in producer behavior.

To echo a position I have shared in the past, the province needs to embrace a “macro approach” when it comes to sustainable materials management – Viewing end of life waste management as separate from other stages of a products life cycle is too myopic in scope.

Past emphasis on recycling rates and the recyclability of materials is no longer compatible with the changing nature of packaging. Recycling should not be the main objective, but rather, emphasis should be placed on promoting sustainable outcomes.

If a particular packaging type cannot be readily recycled, but abates more carbon at a lower cost (i.e. avoided food waste), should that be discouraged? Will forcing producers to pay 100% of the cost of recycling light weight plastics result in technological innovation and new end use applications? Or will it result in a bill in the hundreds of millions for Ontarians?

At present, the way waste management systems and legislation are designed is “siloed” – Blue Box is a distinct entity from the Green Bin, which is a distinct entity from waste electronics etc. While this may be a necessity from an operational perspective, it is imperative to take a step back and look at the entire waste management system. There is an opportunity cost to whatever decision we make – a dollar spent on one end of life management option is a dollar not spent on another. As such, our priorities should be designed to reflect what we want to achieve in waste management as a whole. Policies and legislation need to enable the province to work towards that goal in an economic, environmental and socially sustainable way. Measuring success in terms of diversion or recycling rates is no longer good enough.

APPENDIX (Calculating increases in consumer basket of goods)

As an example, the proposed increase in the steward obligation in Ontario resulting from the transition to full producer responsibility is $135 million dollars (this is a known number). The university’s methodology uses a six step process:

1) Quantify the potential reduction in the municipal tax base resulting from the transfer of recycling and landfilling costs onto producers (if any)

2) Determine how producers respond to the increased obligation. We operate under the assumption that stewards are not going to internalize any of this $135 million dollars, and that it it will either manifest itself in one of two ways a) costs are transferred to consumers (both directly via the fee allocation model and indirectly via increased pricing, b) contraction of the company resulting in job losses etc. (a less likely scenario, but one that does have a precedent – most of our modeling assuming consumers absorb this cost).

3) Examine the existing basket of good costs across localities (basket of goods costs vary significantly depending on whether it is rural/northern community, urban areas etc.) – part of this analysis is to also to determine the relative price elasticity of the consumer good basket within those communities. We calculate relative price elasticities for a range of consumer goods and household services using measured data in dozens of cities across Canada. Elasticity is very much a function of locality – price elasticity in Northern Ontario is sometimes 200% greater than in Southern Ontario, i.e. you increase the transportation costs for 4 litres of milk by 50 cents, the corresponding price increase in Red Lake is more than $2.00. This also explains why our modeling shows that the increase in the price of consumer goods resulting from producer responsibility is more acute in certain communities.

4) Using a logit-loglinear regression model, we adapt an input-output table that has been regionalized for the Ontario market (or whatever province we are examining). A log-linear analysis is necessary to specifically isolate what percentage of the $135m increase in the steward obligation specifically manifests itself with respect to price changes in the consumer basket of goods.

5) As noted in step 3, we know that certain communities are much more sensitive to changes in the prices of goods based on their relative elasticity measure. Using the output of Step 4, we then apply how price changes manifest in specific communities across Ontario (or a given province). This is how we develop a range of estimates for potential increases in the consumption basket.

6) Once we have determined the potential change in the consumer goods basket, we then backout potential savings resulting from a potential decrease in the municipal taxbase (if any) to arrive at our final estimates.

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About the Author

Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.

Lessons Learned on Collection Policies in Ottawa

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Written by the Continuous Improvement Fund

In anticipation of the curbside collection contracts renewal, pending regulatory/policy change and the development of a 30-year Solid Waste Master Plan, the City of Ottawa retained Dillon Consulting Limited (Dillon) to complete a study and develop a curbside collection model. The model assisted the City in identifying the most cost-effective curbside waste collection system to help support increased waste diversion and reduce residential garbage, while also considering greenhouse gas impact, and cost of implementation.

The Microsoft Excel model was designed as a tool to assist staff in developing curbside collection options and/or new policies. It is based in Microsoft Excel.

The different waste diversion policies that were considered in the model were:

  • Bag/container limits for garbage
  • Pay As You Throw
  • Clear bag program for garbage
  • Containerized garbage program
  • Mandatory participation in diversion programs
  • Material bans e.g., grass clippings, organics and recyclables in garbage

The collection options considered in the model were:

  • Status quo
  • Weekly co-collection of blue/black box
  • Status quo level of service with a 4-day collection week
  • 4 day collection week
  • Status quo with separate weekly leaf/yard waste collection
  • Separate bi-weekly leaf/yard waste collection
  • Weekly collection of recyclables and leaf/yard waste

The model requires input of household information, collection seasons/periods, materials collected, truck compartment and utilization parameters, collection factors, collection costs and waste tonnage breakdown by material type to establish a baseline scenario, which is then used to compare against several different collection and policy options. It can compare new collection and policy options against status quo parameters including costs, vehicles required for servicing, diversion rates, and greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts.

Modeling required resources and system performance

Designed for adaptability, the model will allow other Ontario municipalities to analyze their integrated waste collection system by revising the inputs to the model and waste collection program policy customizations. The model produces several estimated outputs, including:

  • Number of trucks required (per season, per collection stream);
  • Number of hours required to collect materials (per season, per collection stream);
  • Annual cost per household and per person ($);
  • Capture rate (kg/person);
  • Diversion rate (%); and
  • GHG impacts (tonnes CO2 equivalents per year).

Note that this study only looks at residential households that receive curbside collection and does not include bulk material collection.

Lessons learned in Ottawa

Key outcomes of the modelling exercise for Ottawa were:

  • Higher curbside collection costs are attributed to weekly co-collection of dual stream recyclables and leaf/yard waste over a four-day collection week due to the number of vehicles required.

  • The lowest collection costs are for the status quo, and separate weekly or bi-weekly leaf/yard waste collection due to a lower number of vehicles being required than the other scenarios. Separate bi-weekly leaf/yard waste collection may produce less CO2 equivalents per year than status quo for all policy scenarios modeled.

  • Weekly co-collection of blue/black box under a four-day collection week is likely to produce the most CO2 equivalents per year due to the number of vehicles required and hours collecting waste materials.

  • There appears to be a correlation between cost effectiveness and greenhouse gas emissions; higher costs are attributed to model runs that have the higher number of CO2 equivalents per year.

  • Enforcement is key.

Understanding the Complexities of Waste Audits

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The Continuous Improvement Fund (CIF), a partnership between the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), the City of Toronto, Stewardship Ontario (SO) and the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (formerly Waste Diversion Ontario – WDO), recently published an article on understanding the complexities of waste audits.

The article provides extols the virtues of waste composition studies including the insights gained into program operations, aid in directing promotion & education (P&E) resources and developing long-term waste management strategies.  It also provides information on the correct sample size, frequency of sampling and distribution for a waste audit.

Below are some of the highlights from the original article.

How many samples should I take?

The challenge with waste audits is ensuring that an accurate representation of the waste being generated is obtained at minimal cost.  Statistical analysis provides information on confidence levels and margins of error.  Howe does that apply to waste composition studies? The confidence level and margin of error effectively represent a range, where if you repeat the same study, you can be ‘confident’ your results won’t change by more than the margin of error.

Factors Affecting Sample Size Determination

In waste composition audits, there is a broad range of materials that are sorted plus they vary in total amounts. So not only does the methodology need to consider whether the material is present, but also how prevalent it is as a proportion of the total sample composition. Not surprisingly, materials present in smaller quantities require more samples to achieve the same confidence level and margin of error as those that are more prevalent.

Additionally, there is a long list of factors that affect material generation and composition. Variables like household demographics, seasonality and program participation have a big impact on waste generation. In most cases, municipalities simply don’t have enough budget to develop a study that can consider all of the possible variables and achieve high confidence levels (i.e., > 90%) with low margins of error across the broad range of material typically present in the waste stream.

Trade-Offs

Recognizing that most municipalities have a limited budget, three key questions should be considered:

  1. How diverse is the population demographics?
  2. Are most residents provided with the same level of waste service?
  3. Are you looking for big picture trends or looking to target a specific material?

Available budget will ultimately dictate the number of samples that can be taken and the project team will have to decide how best to allocate them to examine the issues in question and address identified variables such as demographics. Obviously, the more consistent factors such as the waste service levels and population demographics are, the greater the data consistency will be and the higher the confidence level will be across a set number of samples.

By way of example, the current CIF/SO waste composition studies typically samples 100 single-family households broken down into 10 samples areas with 10 households in each sample area. The material is typically sorted into about 62 individual materials categories (e.g., PET, Newspaper, Cardboard) at an average ‘all in’ cost of about $110/household sample.

Dealing with Demographics

For most municipalities, it will be more important to focus their efforts on getting the sample distribution across the community right, especially if the data is being used for program planning. Recognizing that many communities have distinct demographic groups, it’s typically easiest to divide a community based on income levels as a surrogate for demographic differences. This can be done by obtaining Stats Canada data on household income levels, and proportioning it out into Low, Medium and High Income. Alternatively, a more complex analysis can be done that considers multiple factors through an Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) test as outlined in CIF Project #1059: Residential Audit Sample Optimization Toolkit.

Coming Soon: New tool for determining confidence levels and sample size

In order to help municipalities determine their confidence level for a set number of samples, the CIF has hired Martin Lysy, Associate Professor of Statistics and Director of the Statistical Consulting and Collaborative Unit at the University of Waterloo (PhD in Statistics, Harvard University, 2012) to develop a tool and guidance document to provide municipalities with an assessment of the trade-offs between statistical accuracy and budget.

The tool relies on ballpark estimates of waste composition data that the CIF has collected, or users can specify from their own historical waste audits. Based on these inputs and user-specified margins of error and confidence levels, the tool will estimate the number of samples required. Users can also test different sample sizes to see the resulting confidence levels and margin of error to ensure they can meet budget constraints. Work is still under way to finalize this new tool but if you want more information contact Mike Birett at [email protected] or Neil Menezes at [email protected].

Universal Truths: Is Landfilling always a bad thing?

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

It’s not every day that an article about garbage is inspired by the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant. While I wish I could tell you that I am a philosophy scholar in my spare time who makes a regular habit of contemplating topics such as moral relativism and deontology, the truth is, I decided to Google a quote I read on an Instagram meme.

With that being said, I am glad I did, because it got me thinking about whether environmentalism, and by proxy, waste, has a set of universal truths that we could all agree upon. To be honest, not many readily come to mind – even for something as insidious as anthropogenic climate change, there are still a significant number of people who either downplay its impacts, or don’t believe in at all. However, one topic my mind kept on going back to was landfilling – When it comes to managing waste, is landfilling is always a “bad” thing?

Intuitively, this seems to make sense – the waste management hierarchy characterizes landfilling as an absolute last resort for managing waste, and many of my earliest memories of environmental issues revolved around the landfilling problem “We are throwing too much stuff away, and we are running out of places to put it”. Even our policies seem centered around keeping waste out of landfills, with system performance being measured in terms of “tonnes recycled and waste diverted”. Jurisdictions across the world are now championing the zero waste mantra, looking to maximize both the economic and environmental impacts of materials by keeping it out of the landfill.

With the above in mind, have we found the illusive universal truth for waste? Can we reach consensus that our goal should be keeping materials out of landfills, and that landfilling as a waste management strategy, is bad? Much like most other waste issues, the answer isn’t as black and white as it may first appear, and landfilling may not be as bad as you think (depending on how you choose to look at the problem).

Before delving into that discussion, let’s briefly remind ourselves about why landfilling is generally seen as bad:

1) There is a paucity of available landfill space – based on existing depletion rates, it’s estimated that Ontario will run out of landfill capacity within the next 15 years (with some even predicting less than 10)

2) If we consider waste a resource, landfilling fails to capture the full economic value of that material, as we do not exhaust all other potential use values prior to disposal.

3) The environmental impacts of sending a material to a landfill aren’t fully quantified or understood. Landfills are sometimes seen as a source of contamination for when waste enters both terrestrial and aquatic environments. Poorly designed landfills also pose acute risks with respect to leachate contamination, which could compromise soil and water health.

4) Landfilling sends the wrong message to the public – as noted above, the bulk of our environmental programming for the past 30 years has centered on recycling and reducing the amount of waste we send to landfills. Landfilling indirectly incents and rationalizes unnecessary waste generation.

5) One of the goals of a waste management system should be to prioritize other end of life applications, such as waste reduction, reuse and recycling. Landfilling runs the risk of undermining the benefits and importance of the 3Rs.

If the above statements are true, how on earth could landfilling not always be the worst option? The answer (as it often is), is tied to how we choose to define the goals of a system and measure success. If we measure success exclusively in terms of diversion rates, then yes, landfilling is probably always going to be a bad thing. However, if we take a step back and look what makes a waste management system sustainable, we must consider economic and social factors as well. The decision to reduce, reuse, recycle, incinerate or dispose of a material does not exist in isolation. There is always an “opportunity cost” to any decisions we make, and the decision to landfill or not to landfill a material must be evaluated relative to other options that we may have available.

The Cling Wrap Case Study

To better illustrate this point, let’s consider cling wrap, a plastic film made from LLDPE that is most commonly used by households to wrap and store food. If you were to ask most waste management operators, they would tell you that cling wrap is bad for the environment and extraordinarily problematic to manage – it’s difficult to screen and sort plastic film at a material recycling facility, and even when that is possible, there are virtually no end markets for the material. When it is recycled, it costs in excess of $2000 a tonne and that material is almost inevitably downcycled into a good that is still destined for landfill. In this scenario, our desire to keep cling wrap out of landfills via recycling results in an a massive bill – if 5000T of cling wrap are collected every year, and we attempt to recycle that material to avoid landfilling, it would cost approximately $10 million dollars to do so. To provide context, 5000T would represent less than half of a percent of all Blue Box materials recycled in Ontario, while the $10 million dollars would make up almost 4% of all costs. In this scenario, we are allocating an inordinate amount of resources to a material that for intents and purposes doesn’t net much in terms of environmental benefits.

The latter point is something worth highlighting, as not only does cling wrap have negligible environmental benefits in the event you are able to recycle it, but even if it does end up in a landfill, both acute and indirect harm to the environment from landfilling is negligible. For all intents and purposes, cling wrap is a relatively innocuous product that represents a tiny fraction of all material sent to a landfill (a drop in the bucket of overall capacity). It is inert and will not break down into the surrounding environment in any meaningful time frame (unless exposed to a catalyst of some type). Beyond the negative optics of discarding cling wrap in landfills, there is negligible measured harm.

While some may point to these issues as a reason for why we need to abandon cling wrap all together, it is important that we don’t myopically focus on an end of life problem, and consider the product’s entire life cycle when evaluating its environmental impact. As noted in the very first sentence of this section, cling wrap is most commonly used as a form of food storage.

In a 2019 study conducted by York University examining the life cycle impacts of various food storage products, the use of cling wrap by households was able to achieve both avoided food waste (less edible material being discarded) and food source reduction (reducing the need to go out and buy more food).

The carbon savings attributable to this change in consumption and storage habits for food resulted in a net carbon savings exceeding 10 T/CO2e for every 1 tonne of product manufactured. This modeling also assumed a worst case scenario, and assumed that cling wrap (and packaging) was comprised of 100% virgin materials, and that all materials would be landfilled at end of life. The recyclability (or lack thereof) of cling wrap had no bearing on the environmental benefits resulting from avoided food waste, even if every tonne of cling wrap was sent to landfill.

In short, cling wrap, a product that is often characterized as being environmentally harmful due to low levels of recyclability, abates more carbon than the average Blue Box material. Once again, when we take a step back and look at the life cycle of the products that we use, in addition to the economic costs of our various end of life options, the decision to recycle or landfill becomes less clear.

No such thing as a universal truth (in waste)

While I would like to think that there is at least one issue that we can all agree on, the complexity and nuances of a topic such as landfilling makes it all but impossible to achieve consensus. At first glance, landfilling does indeed seem like a very bad thing that should be avoided. When evaluating that statement in isolation, that is probably true. However, the moment we begin to think outside of the narrow scope of recycling/diversion rates and begin to include variables such as cost, capacity, available technology, perceived environmental harm, measured environmental harm, life cycle impacts, economic and environmental risks by disposal method etc., our answer may change. In fact, depending on who is asking the question and how they choose to weight certain factors, two people may have very different “truths” – neither one being right, or wrong.

From a personal perspective, when I think about the landfilling problem, my mind keeps on returning to the concept of opportunity cost. For every dollar I spend to keep something out of a landfill, that is one less dollar that I have to spend on something else. The flip side of that is that for every one tonne of material that I send to a landfill, means one tonne less tonne to store future waste. Does it make sense to spend thousands of dollars a tonne to ensure that materials such as composite and light-weight plastics are recycled instead of landfilled? From my perspective, no. The decision to spend millions of dollars on keeping a material out of landfill can only be rationalized if: a) the environmental benefit from recycling/diverting is significant b) the material poses an acute risk to the environment, and must be managed in a controlled way, and c) there is no remaining landfill/disposal capacity, necessitating that the material be diverted.

With that being said, I still think that we tend to lose sight of what we should be trying to achieve in the pursuit of aspirational goals such as zero waste and circularity. Our interpretation of those goals can be quite literal at times, with people ardently saying that landfilling has no place in a circular economy or zero waste future. But circularity and zero waste are subset of broader sustainability objectives – prohibiting disposal of materials in a landfill only makes sense if it is satisfying environmental, economic and social goals.

Can landfilling be bad? Absolutely. Can landfilling make sense given certain conditions? Of course. The most important thing is that we don’t treat all materials and circumstances the same way, incorporating life cycle thinking that can better inform whether we should landfill or divert a material. What to do with a material at end of life doesn’t start when you throw it in the garbage – it starts from the moment that a product is made.

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About the Author

Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.

 

New study in the publication Nature finds compostable coffee pods a superior alternative to plastic pods

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

Recently, the esteemed academic journal Nature, published a study by University of Tennessee – Knoxville, which undertook a Life Cycle Assessment of compostable coffee pods. This study specifically examined the economic and environmental viability of compostable pods, relative to more conventional alternatives made from plastics.

The study found that compostable coffee pods readily broke down when included as part of the organics stream, resulting in both a cost savings of 21% relative to disposal, in addition to *improving* the quality and value of the compost.

These findings largely echo what was observed in a York University study conducted in the fall of 2018, which found that compostable coffee pods readily broke down in existing composting facilities in Ontario, and resulted in superior economic and environmental outcomes when compared to plastic and aluminum pods.

Why these findings are of particular importance in an Ontario context, is that detractors of compostable pods (which include the City of Toronto, Environmental Defense etc), continue to question the viability of compostable pods in existing composting facilities, and have even gone so far as to claim that the majority of compostable pods are being landfilled. Not only is this not true, but it adds further confusion to the conversation surrounding what materials are suitable for the green bin program.

The University of Tennessee study adds further credence to our initial findings, and adds some much needed clarity to a topic that is increasingly becoming politicized.

For any questions, comments or concerns regarding the York University study, please contact [email protected].

St. Albert, Alberta envisions neighbourhood WTE’s

As reported in St. Albert Today, mayor Cathy Heron of St. Albert, Alberta sees the opportunity of partnering with developers and incorporating waste-to-energy facilities into neighbourhoods over the next five years.  Located just northeast of Edmonton with a population of 66,000, St. Albert has one of the highest rates in the province according to the Recycling Council of Alberta at nearly 65 percent.

The mayor’s vision of the future can be traced back to a Smart City Master Plan first prepared by the City in 2016 and recently updated.  The plan calls for smart approach to waste management that would include the identification of partnerships, the utilization of new technologies and innovations, better practices that better serve the community, and a reduction of the ecological footprint.  The Smart City Master Plan calls for the exploration of collaborative ecosystems and the circular economy as a way of reducing waste and developing new economic models:

  • Reduce the influx of single-use plastics and other products that are difficult to
    recycle
  • Develop new ways of dealing with waste that currently cannot be recycled
  • Examine waste-to-energy technologies
  • Ensure that hazardous waste is processed appropriately

In the view of the mayor, the household waste generated in neighbourhoods could be used to generate heat, electricity, or some other source of fuel (i.e., transportation fuel). “Once you have that energy output, you can do anything with it, right? We could heat our sidewalks with it, we could heat our homes with it … we could sell the electricity off the grid and make it a revenue generator”, the mayor stated in her interview with St. Albert Today.

Currently, municipal waste from the city is disposed of at the Rose Ridge Landfill, approximately 20-km from the city core.  Utilizing the waste as fuel within the neighbourhoods it in generated will result in a reduction in the cost of transportation along with a reduction in greenhouse gas generation.

A 2018 report funded by the Dutch government found that microgrid technologies could make a local “techno-economy” 90 percent self-sufficient, through the decentralized sharing of energy at the local level between multiple households.

Vision of a decentralized microgrid Community (Photo Credit: Metabolic)

With respect to the negative stigma associated with a waste-to-energy facility being located in the near vicinity of a residential neighbourhood, the mayor stated in St. Albert Today, ““You can disguise the (unit) on what looks like a house. Garbage would be picked up in the area and delivered right within that area to a waste-to-energy generator.”

There is already a potential private partner interested in the mayor’s idea.  Averton Homes is planning a three-phase development, which would include 800 residential units, seniors housing and commercial properties.  “We are early in those conversations, but there’s a willingness on both parts to explore it because there’s a need for us to think creatively as an industry, and I think there’s a need for the municipalities to do so as well,” said Averton president Paul Lanni in St. Albert Today.

The City is already funding $1 million towards a one-year pilot demonstration of a waste-to-energy gasification system at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre.  The total capital cost of the pilot system is estimated to be $4 million.  St. Albert is relying on partnerships and grants to cover the remaining balance.

There is skepticism that St. Albert’s smart city approach to waste management would be economical.  A white paper on waste-to-energy provided to city council in early 2019 found a gasification/pyrolysis-based system would cost $57 to $806 per tonne of waste, depending on the technology used.

 

Waste incineration: Why isn’t it mainstream in North America?

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Written by Sarah Welstead, Eco Waste Solutions

Somehow, Sweden makes it cool

The other day, an old friend of mine – who doesn’t really know much about what I do here at Eco Waste, or really even what Eco Waste does – posted a link to a piece in The Independent about how Sweden has gotten so good at turning its trash into energy that it now imports other countries’ trash just to keep its own facilities going.

My friend’s comment on the link was: “This is awesome! Why aren’t we doing that here?”

Those of us in the waste-to-energy field are, of course, well aware that Sweden has long been the benchmark for successful waste incineration.

While containerized waste incineration and thermal combustion technologies have been growing and improving over the past few years, they aren’t really a new idea: The first waste-to-energy (WTE) facility in the United States opened in New York City in 1898, and technology developers have been trying commercialize gasification and pyrolysis facilities for municipal solid waste (MSW) since the 1970s.

So why would someone like my friend – who’s smart, well-educated, up-to-date on current events and with a background in the sciences – have such a gap in her knowledge of waste-to-energy, and completely unaware that environmentally-progressive countries lie Sweden have successfully left landfills behind when it comes to disposing of untreated waste?

Because the industry simply hasn’t done a good job of educating the public. And it’s time we got smarter about this.

It’s time we addressed the 3 core reasons for resistance to waste-to-energy.

Reason 1: Everyone freaks out when they hear the word ‘incineration’

Outside of the waste management industry – and sometimes within it, unfortunately – the word ‘incineration’ conjures apocalyptic images of town dumps burning out of control, or tire fires, or some guy burning his garbage in his backyard. And many people have heard of the health hazards associated with military ‘burn pits’ that have so often been the way military units deployed in remote locations have dealt with waste they can’t transport out. All of these things are, of course, bad.

But ‘incineration’ in a waste-to-energy or cleantech context is in fact a totally different thing. It’s still ‘combustion’, but it’s combustion that happens in highly-controlled environments, using super-high temperatures. Smoke and anything toxic is then filtered through hard-core scrubbers that ensure nothing dangerous gets into the air, and anything left over – inert bottom ash and more concentrated fly ash – are easy to dispose of, safely.

This isn’t vaporware; it’s not untried technology; it’s not even a shell game that doesn’t withstand scrutiny. High-temperature, advanced incineration which reduces waste by up to 90% with safe emissions has been around for years.

Reason 2: Waste-to-energy requires a long-term vision – and most politicians prefer immediacy

The primary competition for incineration-based waste-to-energy facilities in municipalities and communities when they’re considering a new waste management solution are landfills. Landfills are relatively easy to set up (though they do require proper construction), they’re familiar, and when compared with waste-to-energy facilities, they tend to cost less in the near term.

Incineration-based waste-to-energy facilities generally require a more significant up-front investment. WTE requires less land than a landfill, but does require money to build the incineration, containment and pollution-control facilities and associated technology.

For the first 10-15 years of operation, the landfill can look like the better investment: If it’s been set up correctly, and the community size stays within predicted growth levels, your landfill won’t cost a whole lot to run, manage or maintain – the ROI looks pretty good.

But at 15-20 years, landfills can start to look like a bad investment. What started as a plot of land in the middle of nowhere has now been surrounded by the city and is pulling property values down; it’s starting to near capacity so you need to find a whole new site for the garbage; and all that stuff accumulating in the ground has caused groundwater pollution problems that no one anticipated – and suddenly that ‘cheap’ solution is far more expensive than planned.

The cleantech waste-to-energy incineration facility, on the other hand, is still operating just fine. It doesn’t require more land, isn’t causing more pollution, and in fact is improving efficiency as it upgrades its technology.

Unfortunately, the people most able to effect a shift from landfills to WTE are politicians, who often control budgets and strategic initiatives for the communities in which they live. And when they need to be re-elected, they opt for choices which look better in the short-term, which means they aren’t often good at making the case for the long-term benefits of incineration-based waste-to-energy.

Reason 3: No one knows enough about garbage

While 66% of Canadians believe that protecting the environment is important, even at the risk of stifling economic growth, they, like the citizens in many other developed countries, are still generating 2.7kg of waste per capita every single day.

And far too many people still think that recycling is going to solve the problem, even though recycling only addresses a small fraction of the waste generated.

Why? Because those of us who know better – those of us in the thermal conversion industry, particularly – aren’t making the case very well. We see the media running stories that focus on community protests against a proposed waste-to-energy facility and don’t speak up to explain that ‘incineration’ doesn’t mean uncontrolled burning. We don’t invest in lobbying politicians to help them make the case for thermal conversion to their constituents. We don’t invest in marketing and PR efforts to help the public understand that modern incineration is much more environmentally sustainable than they realize. And we often resist partnering with other thermal conversion companies to drive the industry forward because we worry about getting or maintaining a competitive advantage.

So what do we do?

It’s time for those of us in the thermal conversion and waste-to-energy industries to get more vocal about what we do – and why it’s so smart. It’s time to stop assuming that no one wants to talk about garbage and start talking about how waste-to-energy is not just interesting but effective, and how it’s giving us a real opportunity to improve our communities and the planet. It’s time to stop being embarrassed by talking about our careers in ‘garbage’ and start evangelizing about cleantech.

Because when people know more, they start thinking like my Facebook friend: “This is awesome! Why aren’t we doing that here?”


About the Author

Sarah Welstead is the Marketing Director at Eco Waste Solutions, a Canadian-based company that is a leading supplier of modular thermal treatment and waste-to-energy technology. Eco Waste Solutions has more than 80 WTE installations in 18 countries.

Record Investments in Start-ups focused on waste packaging reduction

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According to an article in CrunchBase, there has been a record investment in cleantech start-ups focused on waste packaging reduction.

According to CrunchBase data, there are at least seven companies over the past three years that have raised over $20 million (U.S.) in capital that are in that are focused on sustainable packaging.

The eco-packaging start-up that has raised the most capital, Zume, originally started out as robot-enabled pizza prep and delivery business before pivoting to sustainable packaging after acquiring a company called Pivot Package. The company is focused on reducing the amount of food that is wasted by attempting to balance the supply and demand for food. Zume uses real-time food consumption data and predictive analytics to help food companies better predict demand, connect it with production and drive better resource decisions down the food supply chain.

One of the seven start-ups noted in the database is Ontario-based GreenMantra Technologies, a company that produces value-added synthetic waxes, polymer additives, and other chemicals from recycled plastic. GreenMantra claims that it is the first company in the world to up-cycle post-consumer and post-industrial recycled plastics into synthetic polymers and additives that meet specific performance requirements for industrial applications.

Researchers produces biodegradable plastic from Cactus plants

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Led by Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a chemical engineering professor at the University of the Valley of Atemajac, scientists at the Universidad del Valle de Atemajac in Guadalajara, have successfully create biodegradable plastic from the juice of the prickly pear cactus.

The researchers trim cactus leaves, and then put them into a juicer and create a bright green liquid. After it’s mixed with other natural materials and processed, it later undergoes a process that transforms the cactus juice into a biodegradable plastic.

Currently it’s being made as prototypes at Oritz’s lab and the process takes 10 days to make. Extensive research is still needed to test the efficiency and to scale up the production of the plastic alternative.

The non-toxic plastic takes one month to biodegrade in soil, and a week in water. The project was supported by a scholarship for graduate students awarded by the National Council of Science and Technology in Mexico.

The bioplastic created from the cactus juice is nontoxic if it’s eaten. “The cactus of this species contains a large amount of sugars and gums that favor the formation of the biopolymer,” says Professor Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, the lead researcher.

Dr. Pascoe Ortiz hopes the bioplastic can replace most single-use plastic products in the world. “I hope the cactus-based plastic will help reduce the impact of solid waste in Mexico and around the world,” stated Pascoe Ortiz.

Could Renewable Natural Gas Be the Next Big Thing in Green Energy?

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Written by Jonathan Mingle, Freelance Journalist and republished with permission of Yale Environment 360

In the next few weeks, construction crews will begin building an anaerobic digester on the Goodrich Family Farm in western Vermont that will transform cow manure and locally sourced food waste into renewable natural gas (RNG), to be sent via pipeline to nearby Middlebury College and other customers willing to pay a premium for low-carbon energy.

For the developer, Vanguard Renewables, the project represents both a departure and a strategic bet. The firm already owns and operates five farm-based biogas systems in Massachusetts; each generates electricity on site that is sent to the grid and sold under the state’s net-metering law. The Vermont project, however, is Vanguard’s first foray into producing RNG — biogas that is refined, injected into natural gas pipelines as nearly pure methane, and then burned to make electricity, heat homes, or fuel vehicles.

“Producing RNG for pipeline injection and vehicle fueling is the evolution of where everything is going” in the biogas sector, says John Hanselman, Vanguard’s CEO.

Biogas has been around for a long time in the United States, mainly in the form of rudimentary systems that either capture methane from landfills and sewage treatment plants and use it to produce small amounts of electricity, or aging digesters at dairy operations that might power a local farm and send some surplus power to the grid. But those are fast becoming outdated and out-produced by a new wave of large-scale renewable natural gas projects that are springing up around the country. These ventures are tapping into heretofore unexploited sources of energy: some are capturing the vast amounts of methane generated by manure from some of the 2,300 hog farms that dot eastern North Carolina; some are building biodigesters to turn clusters of large California dairy farms into energy hubs; and some are seeking to divert food waste from landfills and transform it into vehicle and heating fuels.

Biogas systems could produce enough renewable energy to power 3 million homes in the U.S.

Renewable natural gas is reaching a tipping point for several reasons: An increasing number of third-party operators like Vanguard are relieving farmers and landfills of the burden of running their own energy systems and are introducing more sophisticated technologies to capture methane and pump it directly into pipelines. Some states, including California, are passing laws requiring the development of renewable natural gas. And utilities across the country are starting to support these new initiatives, as evidenced by the new partnership between Dominion Energy and Smithfield Farms — the world’s largest pork producer — to develop new hog waste biogas projects. For proponents, the ultimate goal is to replace a significant portion of the fossil-derived natural gas streaming through U.S. pipelines with pure methane generated by human garbage and animal and agricultural waste.

“If you can recover energy before sending what remains back to the soil, that’s a great thing,” said Nora Goldstein, the longtime editor of BioCycle Magazine, which has covered the organics recycling and anaerobic digestion industries for decades. “You look at all those benefits and say, ‘Why aren’t more people doing this?’ The key is you need to do it correctly.”

The untapped potential — especially of the billions of gallons of animal manure and millions of tons of food waste generated each year in the U.S. — is immense. According to a 2014 “Biogas Opportunities Roadmap” report produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy, the U.S. could support at least 13,000 biogas facilities, fed by manure, landfill gas, and biosolids from sewage treatment plants. Those new systems could produce 654 billion cubic feet of biogas per year — enough renewable energy to power 3 million homes. And a study by the World Resources Institute estimated that the 50 million tons of organic waste sent to landfills or incinerated every year in the U.S has the energy content of 6 billion gallons of diesel fuel, 15 percent of all diesel consumed by heavy-duty trucks and buses.

A truck delivers food waste to an anaerobic digester at a Massachusetts farm. VANGUARD RENEWABLES

Experts say that the growing utilization of biogas could help lower greenhouse gas emissions from some of the toughest sectors to decarbonize — transportation, industry, and heating buildings — even as it reduces heat-trapping methane emissions, keeps organic waste out of landfills, and prevents manure runoff into rivers and water supplies. Through anaerobic digestion, biogas can be made from any organic material — food scraps, agricultural residues, even the sludge left over from brewing beer. These materials are fed as a slurry into tanks where microbes feast on them in the absence of oxygen, destroying pathogens, producing methane and other gases, and leaving a nutrient-rich fertilizer as a byproduct.

In the field of renewable natural gas, the U.S. is playing catch up with Europe, which has more than 17,400 biogas plants and accounts for two-thirds of the world’s 15 gigawatts of biogas electricity capacity. Denmark alone, a country of 5.8 million people, has more than 160 biogas systems. For a period last summer, 18 percent of the gas consumed in Denmark came from RNG produced by its anaerobic digesters. Flush with their success, Danish bioenergy firms estimate it will be feasible to fully replace the country’s natural gas with renewable natural gas within 20 years.

The former manager of the EPA’s anaerobic digestion programs, Chris Voell, was so impressed with Denmark’s biogas operations — which are highly engineered to digest a mix of household food scraps, residuals from food processing businesses, and livestock manure — that he now works for the Danish Trade Council to introduce Danish digester technology and business models to the U.S market.

As with most climate initiatives, California is leading biogas efforts in the U.S. The state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) — which provides incentives for fuel producers to increase the amount of low-carbon or renewable fuels they supply and sell — is a key component of the state’s ambitious climate plan and has catalyzed the rapid growth of a new, lucrative market for RNG as a vehicle fuel.

A growing crop of specialized firms builds, owns, and operates anaerobic digesters in the U.S.

Companies like Maas Energy Works and California Bioenergy have responded to these incentives by installing digesters at California’s dairy farms at a rapid clip. Maas has built 17 so far, with 12 more under construction and 32 others in development, according to its website. Both companies are racing to take advantage of valuable LCFS incentives.

And both are among a growing crop of specialized, investor-backed firms that build, own, and operate anaerobic digesters in the U.S. “With every day the industry is gaining more credibility,” Voell says. “We’re seeing more professional third-party companies. And in order to see this scale, it takes those professionals to come in and build 10, 20, 50 projects, and access a lot of equity investors. They want a portfolio of projects to invest in, not just one.”

In North Carolina, the abundant feedstock is hog manure. And the latest entrant in the RNG race is Smithfield, the world’s biggest grower of hogs. North Carolina is the second-largest pork-producing state (after Iowa). Each day, more than 2,000 of its hog farms flush manure from 9 million pigs into vast lagoons, which emit equally vast quantities of methane. Ninety percent of those farms are contract growers for Smithfield.

Late last year, Smithfield launched a joint venture, Align RNG, with a Virginia-based utility, Dominion Energy, to invest $250 million in covering lagoons and installing anaerobic digesters at nearly all of its hog finishing farms in North Carolina, Utah, and Missouri over the next 10 years. Construction is already underway on four projects that will produce enough RNG to power 14,000 homes and businesses.

A covered lagoon manure digester on Van Warmerdam Dairy in Galt, California. MAAS ENERGY WORKS

These systems will all be modeled on Optima KV, a biogas project in Kenansville, North Carolina, in the heart of hog country. Last year, Optima KV became the first project in the state to produce and inject RNG into an existing natural gas pipeline.

The factors that made Optima KV possible — along with the waste from 60,000 pigs on five nearby farms, and a centralized system to clean and upgrade the gas — include a state renewable energy portfolio standard law signed in 2007. That law contained a requirement that utilities source at least 0.2 percent of their electricity from swine and poultry waste by 2020. That mandate helped push Duke Energy, one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., to sign a 15-year agreement to purchase 80,000 million BTUs of RNG from Optima KV. That biogas will directly displace the use of fossil natural gas and generate 11,000 megawatt-hours of power in two of Duke’s power plants.

Vanguard’s new operation in Vermont represents an alternative model for scaling up RNG production. The company’s digesters are more complex and expensive — engineered to produce a consistent output of gas even as feedstocks and other conditions change — than the systems being built in California. The California systems basically cover huge dairy waste lagoons with plastic membranes and then extract, refine, and pipe the gas to customers.

“We take a more high-tech approach primarily because we need to produce a lot more gas from a much smaller footprint,” Hanselman says. “We don’t have the luxury of a 10,000-cow dairy.”

RNG has flourished in Europe because of generous subsidy programs that are lacking in the U.S.

Along with the daily stream of 100 tons of manure from the Goodrich farm’s 900 cows, and 165 tons of food waste, a number of factors have come together to make Vanguard’s Vermont project possible. In Middlebury College, Vanguard found a large customer eager to slash its carbon footprint. A new law about to take effect in Vermont will ban food waste from landfills starting in 2020, forcing grocery stores and food processors to find new places to send their waste.

And Goodrich Farm will get free heat, monthly lease payments for hosting the system, and bedding for its cows from the leftover digested solids — cost savings that can offer a lifeline for dairy farmers in a period of disastrously low milk prices.

Hanselman, Vanguard’s CEO, says that a key element to expanding RNG is taking the burden of running the system off of farmers. Hanselman encountered many irate farmers who had negative experiences with a previous generation of digesters that had been sold to them as a low-maintenance, low-cost solution to their nutrient management problems. In fact, digesters are finicky machines, sensitive to changes in temperature and the variability of organic material in feedstocks. Says Hanselman, “We tell our farmers, ‘Your job is to make milk, healthy cows, and take care of your fields and soils. Let us run these machines.’”

RNG has flourished in Europe in part because of generous subsidy programs; such comprehensive policies are lacking on the federal level in the U.S., which has a chaotic patchwork of regional and state markets, utilities, incentives, and policies. But Hanselman and others foresee that in the next several years, more states will mandate renewable natural gas production, further strengthening the fledgling biogas market.

“It feels extremely similar to solar,” says Hanselman, who used to run a solar company. “We are in the early days of RNG. Everyone will be running from program to program trying to figure out which states are beneficial, and how to best get RNG into the marketplace.”

Market forces alone, however, won’t be enough to usher in a biogas revolution. The single policy that could supercharge the growth of biogas and RNG in the U.S., most industry observers and insiders agree, is a federally legislated price on carbon. But given that a carbon tax or comprehensive climate bill aren’t likely to emerge any time soon under the current administration, Hanselman says the next best thing the federal government could do is reinstate the investment tax credit for digester systems, which lapsed in 2016.

Despite these challenges, Voell thinks there is now enough momentum to see biogas finally gain widespread traction as a renewable energy source in the U.S.

“I’m more encouraged now more than ever, because I’m actually seeing some projects getting built,” he says. “The states are stepping up with policies. And we’re seeing a revolution now where gas utilities are coming on board. Utilities wield a lot of power. If they decide RNG is something they’d like to see more of, then we’ll start to see the needle move more on the policy front.”

This article has been republished with the permission of Yale E360. It was originally published at Yale E360.


About the Author

Jonathan Mingle is a freelance journalist who focuses on the environment, climate, and development issues. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Boston Globe, and other publications. He lives in Vermont