GreenYes Archives
[GreenYes Home] - [Thread Index] - [Date Index]
[Date Prev] - [Date Next] - [Thread Prev] - [Thread Next]

[GreenYes] The Relation of Landfill Gas to Recycling's Future
    Yesterday, Blair provided an update from North Carolina, prompted by
Pablo's note from the day before about energy recovery from landfill gas.
Blair noted that:
      "A 'subsidy' for green power producers ranging from about 3c/kWh for
production of elec. from landfill gas (that would bring the buyback rate
over 5 cents, enough for an investor to make money. The other part is a
strictly voluntary checkoff for consumers to buy green power at $4/100 kWh
(expensive compared to other programs around the country, according to some
advocates at the public hearing last night) There was a consideration of
applying a surcharge to all consumers at a rate of 19 cents per month (based
on 1000 kWh consumption) that was considered politically infeasible. There's
also some debate regarding the definition of 'green' power i.e. what is
biomass, should we include manure from the giant poulty & hog 'factories'
how about gleanings from the forest floor, how about 'green chips' from the
slash pine? Thus the debate goes on in NC. This item has been on the public
agenda for about two years. If you want to know more: swatson@ncuc. net can
tell you more (sam watso!"
    Blair's note may sound pretty arcane, but, on it, turns something of
substantial import to recyclers.  Let me lay out the backdrop for all this
technical discussion that otherwise might seem outside our keen of
interest -- believe me it's not!

    In the first few years of the modern era of recycling, we had the wind
at our back in the afterglow of the Mobro Garbage Barge that created the
impression that there was a shortage of landfill space.  It was that
perceived shortage that animated the public's willingness to, first, go to
the trouble to sort their discards between that which was recyclable from
that which was not, and second, to pay more for the convenience of curbside
recycling programs.

    By the mid-1990's, however, whatever shortages that had existed had
changed to surpluses as several forces led to the advent of even lower cost
mega-landfills.  This created a very different landscape on which we rested.

    Because modern landfills are very cheap, in most situations separate
collection for recycling costs more than simply throwing everything away.
What recyclers should have done at that point in time was reconnoiter to
figure out what it was that justified spending more money to recycle and
then aggressively acted to inform the public so that we don't wind up
precisely where we are today -- with recycling under attack in city after
city led by the siren calls from our good and dear friends in the Reason
Foundation and the Cato Institute like its our blood in the shark infested
waters.

    There are two primary areas that are counted with this sort of "green
eyeshade" perspective on recycling. The first is the fact that there
enormous environmental impacts from producing packaging and paper from
virgin materials that are not counted in the "books of account."  The second
is that, although landfills are now plentiful, they are not safe and those
impacts are not being counted.

    It is the latter point concerning landfill's externalities that Reason
and Cato have focused their guns on and which Blair's note also brings under
discussion. For the right claims that not only are landfills plentiful, they
are perfectly safe.

    In fact, although they blithely ignore the fact, the engineering
consensus now recognizes that the critics like myself are right.  So-called
"dry tomb" landfills are nothing of the sort.  In fact, as attested to by
EPA technical staff, EPA's Inspector General and by the Executive Director
of the municipal landfill association, the entire elaborate system of
barriers is manmade, and, as such, will eventually leak and contaminate
drinking water supplies in a time period measured in decades, while the
waste load  remains a threat to the environment for centuries because the
organic fraction in a liner based landfill slowly decomposes creating
leachate and methane for a very long time.  Essentially, we have not
prevented pollution, but, at best, only postponed it, and to the very worst
time, when the responsible parties for remediation have passed from the
scene.

    And that is why landfills APPEAR to be cheap -- because we're passing
the true costs to our grandchildren in the form of poisoned drinking water.
The details are far worse, but in the interest of space, let's pass on them
for now (go to www.grrn.org landfill page for more).  This is what we need
to educate the public about to reestablish a raison d'etre for recycling in
the 21st century.  We cannot leave the field of battle to Reason and Cato
without this compelling response.

    In the first half of the 1990's we ate the waste industry's lunch as
diversion rose from less than 10% to more than 30%. But, since 1996 when the
landfill crisis dissipated, we have seen growth in diversion stall out.  If
we don't act and act aggressively to change public perceptions, we will
continue to see slow erosion of our base until the downward slide undermines
so much of the essential recycling infrastructure that things eventually
reach a point of no return that is called in industrial organization a
"death spiral".

    At the same time -- and this is where things tie together with the
discussion that Blair raised yesterday -- the landfill industry is
attempting to dodge the bullet with its latest push for a second generation
of bioreactors, without ever acknowledging the infirmities in the dry tomb
designs that they so recently championed as safe.

    In a bioreactor, instead of attempting to keep things dry -- a task that
there is no responsible party which any longer claims can be done for the
requisite time -- liquids are deliberately added in an effort to encourage
decomposition, with the implied erroneous claim that the site will be
stablized by the time it is closed.  However, to encourage decomposition, it
is necessary to increase moisture levels from the incoming levels of 25% to
65% or more. This means liquifying the toxic laced waste load. And remember
landfills in most cases are not holes dug in the ground, but are man made
mountains hundreds of feet in the air contained behind little more than a 2
foot compacted dirt berm and plastic tarp.

    To make matters worse, even though this description graphically
illustrates the need to utilize the most stringent safety features to
actively manage the engineering challenges it poses, the industry has
effectively stated that the designs employed must primarily not cost more
than dry tomb landfills.

    Since the problem stems from the fact that it appears impossible to
safely manage organics in the ground, what should be the focus of
attention -- as it already is in Europe and parts of Canada -- is the
obvious, simple and elegant solution. That is to simply separate the food,
paper and green waste in our homes, offices and stores, for composting --
just as we already have successfully separated our bottles, cans and
newspapers for recycling.  In this way, the problem material will never
reach the landfill in the first place.  And if we were to do this, since
organics constitute 60% of what goes to landfills -- overall diversion in
the U.S. could go from 30-35% to more than 75%. That's the next big step to
zero waste that is within our grasp.

    The landfill industry says that disposal only costs $20-30/ton and
expanded composting will cost too much.  But, that's because the current
costs ignore the long term problem that we're creating tomorrow's superfund
sites in today 3000 "engineered" landfills that, at something like $50
million a pop in tomorrow's dollars, will probably cost more than $100
billion to clean up, an enormous figure that doesn't appear anywhere in the
tip fees at our landfill gates today  that the waste industry fully intends
to foist off for the public to bail out just like the Savings and Loan
debacle of the 1980's.  That's something like $83/ton of uncounted
remedition costs, which, if added to today's disposal costs as proper
economic counting demands it should, would make expanded composting look
cheap in comparison!

    Not only has the landfill industry not been challenged on this score,
we've permitted them to claim -- and this is where Blair's note comes in --
that bioreactors are not dirty, smelly garbage dumps. Now they refer to them
as green energy parks that are positive gain to the environment.  If they
win this battle of the words (as in is abortion about pro-choice or
pro-life), we'll seal our fate by eliminating any reason for existing. After
all, the story will go, why go to all the trouble and expense of recycling
if going to a landfill is so green?

    What this is about is the fact that when the organic part of our garbage
(food, paper and green waste) rots in a landfill it forms an oxygen starved
environment (anaerobic) that produces methane.  Methane is both a terrible
greenhouse gas with more than 21 times the warming impact of CO2 and a
commercial source of energy when burned.

    Since 1996, EPA has required large landfills to install rudimentary gas
collection systems.  At that time the purpose of this requirement was to
prevent landfill gas fires and explosions that occurred with disturbing
frequency as gas builtup and then ignited.  It distracted from the attempt
in that era to color "modern" landfills as "sanitary landfills."  Another
concern was to abate the carcinogenic volatile organic compounds that
threatened public health of landfill neighbors.  Coming over the horizon at
that time, but not an official part of the regulatory structure, was the set
of climate changes issues that the methane represented.

    The landfill industry contends that it can reduce the threat of global
warming by not just capturing the landfill gas as required, but also,
instead of flaring it, installing generators to produce electricity.  By
producing electricity from methane that would otherwise be flared, they
continue, they will displace the need to generate electricity elsewhere such
as in coal burning power plants, and the net production of greenhouse and
noxious gases will be reduced, hence the claim to being green (as for the
concomitant claim of being renewable like wind or solar I don't understand
where this comes other than from chutzpah).  This is true -- as far as it
goes -- only it doesn't go very far down the road.

    The first and most important thing to bear in mind is that the gas
collection systems in relatively stable dry tomb landfills are extremely
inefficient.  No field data exists and EPA refuses to compile any for
obvious reasons, but from what is known, it would be impossible to support a
case that much more than 10-20% of total gases released are actually capturd
for the simple to understand reason that no collection pipes are in
operation for most of the time gases are released.  Without any data or
basis in fact, EPA blithely claims 75%.  That is to say, almost all of the
gases are uncontrolled and massively dwarf any offset benefits.

    In bioreactors, if possible, things are worse.  Because they are subject
to differential settlement under accelerated decomposition, the rigid
vertical pipes used in dry tomb landfills would snap. Instead, it is thought
that flexible horizontal pipes will be used instead to draw out the gases.
But, those pipes will sag whereever there is a soft spot in the waste load,
and the water that floods the bioreactor will pour into those dips, impeding
gas flows.  In addition, the rapid decomposition will cause biofouling that
will clog these pipes.  The industry refuses to openly discuss and
demonstrate how the accelerated gas generation will be captured.

   The second thing to remember is that methane from a landfill is NOT the
same as natural gas that comes out of your stove.  It includes a witches
brew of very dangerous carcinogenic compounds.  These include:

        Benzene                                1.91 ppm
        Methylene Chloride              14.3
        Vinyl Chloide                        7.34
        Toluene                                 39.3
        Xylenes                                 12.1
        Trichlorethene                        2.82
        Source: EPA Life Cycle Inventory and Cost Model for Waste Disposal


    Under these circumstances, we have to urgent requirements if recycling
is to grow and thrive in the 21st century.  First, we need to actively
intevene in the ongoing EPA proceedings about to authorize on-the-cheap
bioreactors as the second generation landfills, all the while studiously
ignoring expanded composting even though the agency's own integrated waste
hierarchy ranks composting above landfilling. Otherwise we will relegate
ourselves to competing against $20 ton landfills for the next 10 years -- a
battle that we will inevitably lose in the marketplace as the force of 20
year old state recycling mandates come up against one too many fiscal crisis
in municipal budgets.  Second, we also need to join the battle of words and
images.  Landfills are not green, nonetheless renewable, any more than they
are safe.

    Anyone who would like to learn how to become more engaged in this battle
for our survival should contact me directly.  If we don't organize and act
aggressively to assert our industry, we won't have anything to hand down to
the next generation, and, all our efforts will be left in the dust bin of
history.

                                                        Peter








______________________________
Peter Anderson
RECYCLEWORLDS CONSULTING Corp
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705
Ph:    (608) 231-1100
Fax:   (608) 233-0011
Cell:   (608) 345-0381
email: anderson@recycleworlds.org
web:  www.recycleworlds.org

******************************************
To post to the greenyes list,
email to: greenyes@grrn.org

subscription, faq and netiquette info for
this list are available here:
http://greenyes.grrn.org/
Please be sure to read the faq and netiquette
pages before posting.
******************************************

[GreenYes Home] - [Date Index] - [Thread Index]
[Date Prev] - [Date Next] - [Thread Prev] - [Thread Next]