Tag Archives: waste-to-energy

Waste Not . . .

The plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States.  In fact, the US hosts half of the world’s top fifty plastics manufacturing companies.  Sales in 2014 were over $961 billion, with the US holding a sizable trade surplus in plastics.  Demand continues to rise, with consumption between 2011 and 2012 going up 5.7 percent.

Since its basic component is mineral oil, plastic is considered a petrochemical.  Some of the largest plastics manufacturers are household names in the US, including Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemicals, and Chevron Phillips.

In developed countries like the US, a third of plastics goes into packaging.  Another third is used in buildings, such as pipes, plumbing, and vinyl siding.  Other uses include toys, furniture, cars, and medical equipment, among other things.

Thanks to the fracking boom, the US is now one of the cheapest places in the world to manufacture plastics.  The chemical industry plans to spend $185 billion in the next few years to expand its capacity.  Four new plastics plants were slated to begin operations in the US in 2017.

At the same time, the US’ main export to China is—or has been—trash, including plastic trash.  It is a multi-billion dollar industry.  Since the 1980’s China has been the world’s largest importer of waste.  By 2012 56% of global exported plastic waste ended up in China, but lack of oversight led to major environmental and health problems.  Also, China’s middle class has started discarding enough waste so that the Chinese no longer need imported garbage. So, as of January 1, 2018, China has imposed a ban on imported waste.

According to the New York Times of January 11, 2018, “Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling.”  According to the article, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Britain, and Hong Kong have reported backups in their waste.  Steve Frank, of Pioneer Recycling in Oregon is looking to export to Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Malaysia.  In Britain, Jacqueline O’Donovan of O’Donovan Waste Disposal also exports and reports huge bottlenecks.  China’s ban covers 24 kinds of solid waste and sets new limits on impurities.  China notified the WTO last year it would ban some imports because of contaminants, including hazardous materials.

Germany leads the world in recycling, at 70%.  Americans generate 4.4 pounds per person per day of trash, and generate the most waste in the world, but Americans only recycle 34% of waste and only 9.5% of plastic.  Fifteen percent is burned for electricity and/or heat.  About one-third is exported, and until the ban began, half of that went to China.  The remainder goes to landfill.  It is estimated that it takes 500 years for plastic to break down.  As it does, it leaches toxic components into the ground.  But many US landfill sites are old and fast reaching capacity.

China has the highest carbon emissions in the world, as of 2011, but it also has the largest population.  The United States (third in population), Russia and India (second in population) are the next largest carbon emitters.  Emissions have grown faster than population since 1950.  Since 2000, emissions have grown twice as fast as population.

China, which has a longstanding problem with pollution, is making comprehensive efforts to improve its air and water quality.  Beijing has started promoting green technology, including waste-to-energy incineration.  With WTE, China’s stated priority is trash disposal rather than energy production.

Waste-to-energy (WTE) is a process by which trash is burned to generate electricity, steam, or both.  According to Wikipedia, the first waste incinerator was built in the United Kingdom in 1874.  The first in the US came on line in 1885 on Governor’s Island, New York.  Burning reduces original waste volume by 90-95%. The plants produce electric efficiencies of 14-28%.  Or, water is boiled to power steam generators.  Co-generation can increase efficiency to 80%.

WTE must meet strict emission requirements for nitrous oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), heavy metals and dioxins, based on worldwide emissions standards set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an inter-governmental economic organization with 35 member countries, founded in 1961.

The plants may emit low levels of particulates, heavy metals, trace dioxin, and acid gas.  There’s also toxic fly ash (which requires hazardous waste disposal installation) and incinerator bottom ash, which must be reused properly.  Lime scrubbers reduce acid gas.  Electrostatic precipitators, fabric filters, reactors and catalysts are also used.  In WTE, filters capture mercury and lead. However, even controls can’t eliminate all the dioxin, according to some claimants.

Proponents say the plants emit the same amount of nitrous oxide as coal-fired plants and have the same requirements, but WTE plants emit fewer particulates than coal.

Some European countries burn half of their waste.  Cost for the facilities can be prohibitive, at up to $1 billion.  There are 87 operational WTE facilities in the US, 431 in Europe, and 330-439 in China, depending on the internet source.* Japan is the biggest user of WTE in the world.  It burns 40 million tons of municipal solid waste annually.

Because Germans generate so little waste, the country’s WTE plants lack enough trash to supply its electricity generators.  It imports trash from the UK, Italy, and Switzerland.  Sweden imports trash, too.

The largest waste-to-energy plant in the world is currently under construction in Shenzhen, China, but protesters have succeeded in getting a delay in the project.  Babcock and Wilcox Voland of Denmark has the $40 million contract to design a 168 megawatt boiler that will consume 5600 tons/day of trash.  The roof is to be covered with solar panels.  It is expected to recover 95% of water and 90% of metals, with slag recycled as gravel.  Flue gas is expected to be 95-99% clean.  An even larger WTE plant is being planned in Dubai, capital of the United Arab Emirates, with construction scheduled to begin later in 2018.  It is projected to produce 185 megawatts.

The EPA says the US sent 33.66 million tons of waste for conversion to energy in 2013.  Fifty percent of facilities are privately owned, with Covanta Energy and Wheelabrator Labs the largest.  Most produce electricity only, and 25% produce electricity and stream.  A handful produce only steam.  Twelve states have operating WTE plants.  Florida has the most, at twelve, then New York (10), Massachusetts (7), Pennsylvania and Connecticut (6 each), Virginia and Delaware (5 each).  California, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine have three.

The largest WTE facilities in the US produce over 90 megawatts of electricity and consume around 3000 tons/day of waste.  They each serve around one million people.

In the US, the first WTE plant in 20 years opened in Florida in 2015.  It consumes 3000 tons/day of waste and cost $670 million.  The Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility in West Palm Beach, Florida is publicly owned by the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach, County and operated by Babcock and Wilcox, an international firm out of Denmark.  It is a mass burn facility and produces 95 megawatts. Advocates stress the idea that waste is a resource.

However, the new plant is not getting the loads it expected.  The county already had a WTE plant, in operation since 1989.  There was a fear that landfill would reach capacity around 2022-2023, so the new plant received little public resistance.  There are substantial controls on emissions.  Emission requirements allow for 110 pounds of mercury/year.  The price of the electricity is competitive.  They test for the toxicity of the ash.

An argument against incinerators is that they compete with recycling. Recycling has increased three-fold over the 1980s.  Still, it’s cheaper to make new paper than to recycle, and China’s new ban on trash imports includes mixed paper.

There is a $1 billion facility planned for Baltimore, but it is meeting with public resistance.  Opponents object to emissions so close to a school and blame WTE facilities in Detroit and Harrisburg, PA for those cities’ bankruptcies.  However, WTE industry representatives claim that Harrisburg continued to refinance its facility and to pull cash out for the general fund.  The cost went from $15 to $240 million.  The plant sold for $130 million.

The trajectory of plastics from production to disposal presents a growing problem worldwide, including in the oceans, where huge “gyres,” of floating debris have formed in five separate locations.  The best known is the “Great Pacific Garbage Dump,” which some say is at least the size of Texas.  If there were ever an industry looking for jobs, the pollution control industry would be one of them.

* A problem with internet research is that data is often old, sometimes without posted dates. Some is promotional (so possibly biased), often superficial, and hard to verity.

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The View from Below

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I shoveled the dock steps the other day.  This was part of my latest health initiative, with the purpose of swimming in the river.

Now, most people don’t have a dock or concrete steps to a polluted river where they can swim.  Most people haven’t grown up on said river and watched it change gradually over the past 60 or so years.  It is a blessing and a curse.

While doing this mundane labor, which with clean-up took about two hours, I had time to ponder many worldwide concerns.  First, I listened to the constant buzz of helicopters at Hunter Army Airfield, only a couple of miles–as the helicopter flies–from my house.  There were also military aircraft flying overhead, as I live only 28 degrees off Hunter’s flight paths, and those planes fly low, low, low over my head. This reminded me that the US is engaged in perpetual wars, and I live in a war zone, what with the strong military presence loud, clear, and constant.

Next, I thought about the Clean Water Act of 1972, when the Army Corps of Engineers got jurisdiction over all “wetlands” including the “hydrophytic” marsh that surrounds my small spit of land.  I wondered if the AC of E would fine me for taking mud off the steps and depositing it in the center of my land, which is mine but not mine in that I pay property taxes but can’t modify it.  This spit of land has been sliding into the river for years and now becomes flooded in spring and fall tides.  The channels in the area are also filling in, because no one dredges them anymore, even though the drainage ditches are perpetually clogged and contribute to frequent, severe flooding in Savannah.

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The local movers and shakers would prefer to dump poisonous malathion by helicopter on the entire ecosystem than drain the bogs where mosquitoes breed. That the Army Corps of Engineers pays Chatham County to control mosquitoes, yet operates the largest mosquito habitat in two states does not seem important to anyone but me.  That the dredge material from current harbor deepening project will increase the mosquito habitat at this international port presents no red flags to those who are developing vaccines for mosquito-borne disease but are blithely nonchalant about the cushy habitat they are creating.

This brings me home to the polluted river, which still has fish and shrimp, but not as many as in my childhood.  I figure if fish can swim in it, so can I.  I’ve been stomping around, crabbing, shrimping, boating, water skiing, and swimming in that water since I can remember, so know it well.  While shoveling, I thought about “climate change,” and the claim that the oceans are rising.  I also remembered reading about how land is washing into the oceans and wondered if the oceanic rise is relative to the land’s sinking, in a leveling out that would lead to the oceans’ getting shallower. Shallow water heats more quickly than deep water, as any swimmer knows, and holds more heat, so this could explain some of the climatic changes.

So then I thought about President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord and wondered whether it makes any difference in the long run.  I’ve never been a fan of government solutions to government-supported problems, like the fact that deforestation is a major contributor to climate change.  I don’t believe in paying corporations not to cut trees (as in “carbon credits”) and would prefer instead to reduce demand for paper, like junk mail and single-use packaging.  International Paper, the owner of primo rain forest in South America, and a huge polluter of the Savannah River and air, does not recycle paper.

That got me to thinking about the enormous amount of methane produced by the marsh, the fact that methane and natural gas are the same thing, and that Germany is the world’s leader in recycling (70%).  In addition, Germany has to import garbage to fuel its waste-to-energy plants that provide so much of its heat and electricity. There is also new technology to capture methane produced by landfill, but the US lags behind places like China in its adoption of these promising technologies.  No wonder Angela Merkel was frustrated by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord. Germany is the world leader in sustainability, and should be so acknowledged.

So, Donald Trump may believe coal gives the US a financial advantage, but this is short-sighted.  Apparently China is the largest purchaser of US coal exports, but China built 431 waste-to-energy plants in 2016, so it may not need our coal much longer.  With the reduced cost of solar, India is also going greener.  China is the biggest carbon-emission nation in the world, and the US is second.  Russia is third, and India fourth, according to Google 2011 data.  Americans probably generate the most waste, though, 4.5 pounds of garbage per person per day, and recycling has decreased, now down to about 30 percent.

So, while I solved my personal problem of how to swim without getting mud between my toes and oyster shell cuts on my feet, I also solved a lot of world problems, and I never had to leave home.