Part 1: What To Do With All This Waste?

The holiday season is upon us — a time of thanks, celebration and tons of trash.

According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, each year from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Americans throw away roughly 44 million tons of waste — a 25 percent increase over the average nation-wide trash disposal during the rest of the year.

Each year consumers are buying more, developers are building more, and cities and towns all over the country are beginning to run out of landfill space. So what to do with all this waste? One answer is to convert the waste into another product that Americans have an insatiable appetite for: electricity and fuel.

One company, California-based BlueFire Ethanol, views the issue of residential and commercial waste not as a downside to American consumerism, but as a lucrative business opportunity.

“We’re running out of landfill space in this country and in certain areas it is getting much more difficult to site new ones. We saw this problem and now, by using a lot of the waste entering a landfill, we can extend the longevity of existing landfills while creating a high-quality fuel,” says BlueFire CEO Arnold Klann.

BlueFire uses concentrated acid hydrolysis to make cellulosic ethanol out of wood scraps, paper, agricultural residues and other organic materials. High concentrations of sulfuric acid break down these materials into sugars that are then fermented and purified into fuel for trucks and cars.

“We take what society has deemed to be the lowest value — and that’s trash — and make it into a high value product,” says Klann.

The cellulosic ethanol industry is very much in its infancy, but the government has been working with industry to get companies like BlueFire producing fuel at a commercial scale. Earlier this year, BlueFire was selected to receive a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), allowing the company to build a 19 million gallon per year (mgpy) ethanol refinery in southern California that will begin operation in 2009. In addition, the company will receive a $200 million loan guarantee from the DOE to build a 55 mgpy facility, also in southern California.

“We are going commercial — these are not experimental plants. Our technology is ready for the marketplace,” says Klann. “The only thing that might hinder progress is the inability to get capital, and that’s where government has played a very important role.”

Waste Management is another company making the best of the trash piling up at landfills around the country. This past June, Waste Management announced that it would develop 60 additional landfill-gas-to-energy (LFGTE) projects over the next five years, generating more than 700 megawatts (MW) of electricity from the renewable natural gas. With 103 such facilities already in operation, the company is the largest owner/operator of LFGTE plants in the country.

Landfill gas is produced when microorganisms break down organic material, producing approximately 50-60 percent methane and 40-50 percent carbon dioxide. At most landfills in the U.S. these greenhouse gases are simply burned off or “flared.” Waste Management collects the gasses through a network of wells and pipes to a central area, fueling gas turbines to generate electricity.

LFGTE plants are attractive to utilities because they provide a reliable form of baseload power, says Paul Pabor, Vice President of Renewable Energy at Waste Management. The facilities run about 95 percent of the time, making LFGTE a good fit with intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

“Landfill gas is a part of the solution to the renewable energy demand in this country,” says Pabor. “We fill a particular niche in the renewable energy market. It’s a product that is in higher demand because of the growing number of renewable portfolio standards in the U.S. and the shrinking space in some landfills.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), there are about 425 LFGTE facilities in operation around the country today generating 10 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity each year. LMOP estimates that there are about 560 more U.S. landfills suited for energy production, which could potentially double the industry’s existing capacity.

So while Americans pile up the waste this holiday season, filling already strained landfills, companies like BlueFire and Waste Management are working to turn the problem of too much trash into a renewable energy solution.

Stay tuned — Tomorrow, will examine efforts to convert animal waste into energy.

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I am a reporter with, a blog published by the Center for American Progress. I am former editor and producer for, where I contributed stories and hosted the Inside Renewable Energy Podcast. Keep in touch through twitter! My profile name is: Stphn_Lacey

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