Editor’s Comments: Clearing the Air—An Opportunity for MSW?

May 1, 2000

Technology and MSW are not strangers by any means. We’ve witnessed huge advances in collection, transfer, and materials-processing equipment and systems…. Perhaps it’s time to concentrate more effort on technologies capable of transforming wastes into marketable products. Two leap immediately to mind: landfill gas and predisposal biomass materials.

The foregoing were the title and gist of my Editor’s Comments exactly one year ago, and in light of subsequent events, it seems appropriate to bring it up to date.

When California Governor Gray Davis decided to eliminate methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) from the state’s gasoline by the end of 2002, his pronouncement set in motion an explosion of events, the pieces of which are just now beginning to sort themselves out.

MTBE has been used as a deicer in cold climates in the United States since 1979 and used since 1990 primarily in the winter months—and year-round in California since 1994—as a fuel additive to improve the combustion properties of gasoline. Its resistance to biodegradability, rapid movement through soil, and affinity for water, however, more than offset its contributions to air quality. It’s a nasty water pollutant.

As early as February 1991, the California EPA office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment established an interim action level for MTBE of 35 parts per billion in water. In 1995, our magazine Remediation Management began to focus attention on the groundwater threat posed by the substance, but it was not until 1999 that it became the target of public debate. Suddenly aware of groundwater risks, governing and regulating agencies around the country began to take action to ban the use of MTBE-laced fuels.

Noting the increasing level of public concern, the May/June 1999 issue of MSW Management pointed out the opportunity for conversion of much of the organic fraction of the MSW stream as a feedstock for ethanol to replace MTBE in reformulated fuels. It stated, “There are a number of waste-to-synfuel technologies that are well past the ‘maybe’ stage. Now with the almost-certain restriction on the use of MTBE as a component of automotive fuel, we may be facing just the kind of opportunity that’s needed to jump-start the introduction of a new product for waste managers to market.” Taking this thought further, MSW Management cosponsored a conference in December 1999 to explore fundamental questions relating to sustainable materials management in the 21st century and the potential role of new conversion technologies in processing portions of the solid wastestream into renewable and environmentally benign fuels, chemicals, and sources of clean energy. The text of the conference—available online at http://grc.org/cec/pubs/conv.pdf—addresses the technologies, opportunities, and barriers to commercialization of biowaste conversion.

Issues and Options

Certainly there’s nothing new about nonpetroleum-based fuels synthesized through a wide variety of methods and based on feedstocks that cover nearly the entire material spectrum. Significantly, however, there is a large group in favor of replacing of fossil fuels with cleaner-burning fuels made from renewable resources. Spurred by low farm-product prices in recent years—corn in particular—agriculture interests have been chief supporters of incorporating biofuels in gasoline. Thus, as we near decision points on meeting the new, more restrictive regulations introduced earlier this year as part of the Clean Air Act of 1990, it seems likely that some sort of “renewable-content” requirement will come into being.

While the most obvious issues raised by the MTBE debate are air and water quality, we face a far more fundamental challenge in developing a workable strategy in how we are to apportion and use the world’s resources in light of an emerging global economy. In short, we’ve run head-on into the issue of sustainability in terms of economics, environmental preservation, and the very way we’re able to go about our lives.

Suspend for a moment what you believe to be the threats to our lifestyle today and imagine a situation five years from now when the number of people on the planet with the means to purchase automobiles and everything else we produce, consume, and toss in the trash will double…and then double once again before the end of the decade. How does the way we currently manage our resources fit that vision? How applicable are the policies and practices we go by today? How sustainable is the lifestyle we’ve always considered ours by something akin to a divine right? Or do we think that when people by the thousands in Burma and Somalia want to carve into our resource pie, we can just tell them “no” and expect them to go back to “status quo ante Internet”? More likely it is we who will have to change, perhaps by placing the best of our technologies on the sustainable side rather than the consumptive side of the resource equation.

It makes little difference in the short term whether the rationale for requiring the addition of ethanol to gasoline is as a replacement for MTBE or to inject “renewables content” into fuel. But in terms of an overall policy, it makes more sense to favor the latter because of its more obvious connection with the issue of sustainability. Likewise, in the short run we should applaud the use of agricultural feedstocks as the main ingredient in the production of synfuels, for their ability both to jump-start the commercialization process, and to provide a sorely needed boost in the farm economy. But in the long run it’s important to recognize two important points: (1) making fuel might not always be the highest and best use of valuable cropland, and (2) it someday might be necessary to apply increasingly precious water resources to more pressing demands. Either of these could present us with a sustainability dilemma from which there might be no easy escape. No such caveats apply to waste.

The Case for Waste

The municipal wastestream is composed of approximately 60% organic content, half of which—principally paper and cardboard—can be recycled. The remaining one-third is most likely destined for the landfill. Even though the technologies exist to transform our organic wastes into ethanol and other products, investment in their commercialization depends on definable and verifiable markets. It now appears that while such markets are about to open up and the required organic-waste feedstocks most certainly exist, in the short term there are insufficient waste-fed facilities on-line or being planned to meet more than a small percent of the potential demand.

You’d think that the process for developing the infrastructure to transform a significant portion of our wastestream into ethanol or other salable commodities would be fairly straightforward, but it isn’t. You might expect resistance on the part of petrochemical and even farm interests, but strange to say, the first hurdle comes from certain environmental groups that fear the challenge to the traditional waste-diversion modes of recycling and composting. The basis for this opposition seems to lie in the fear that acceptance of any transformation technology—a classification that lumps together incineration with such nonburn processes as pyrolysis, gasification, and hydrolysis—will open the door to waste incineration. It’s one thing to battle against waste-burning initiatives, but to oppose progress because it doesn’t fit the letter of EPA’s 10-year-old and increasingly institutionalized waste management hierarchy is not in the public’s best interest. Instead, it’s important that all pertinent tax, waste diversion, and emissions-avoidance credits be extended to waste transformation as well as landfill-gas-to-energy in order to turn what is at present an enormous and costly liability into an environmental and economic asset.

Last year’s Editor’s Comments concluded: Permitting the energy content of waste to go for naught is not only economically wasteful, it is an environmental affront. The increasing cost of petroleum extraction along with the ever-present specter of its embargo make fuel and energy generation from waste attractive options. Now with the almost-certain restriction on the use of MTBE as a component of automotive fuel, we might be facing just the kind of opportunity that’s needed to jump-start the introduction of a new product for waste managers to market.

It makes as much sense today as it did a year ago.
About the Author

John Trotti

John Trotti is the former Group Editor for Forester Media.

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