Trash About Trash

For the past few years, the City of Cleveland has been exploring the development of a trash-to-energy facility at its Ridge Road waste transfer station

Currently, the City collects garbage via conventional trucks, brings it to Ridge Road for loading into 18-wheelers, and sends the garbage miles away to a landfill — pretty much the same approach to waste management that’s been used for decades.

Under the leadership of Commissioner Ivan Henderson of the City’s municipatl utility, Cleveland Public Power (CPP), the City has been investigating a different concept:  a materials recycling facility (MRF) at Ridge Road, with the non-recyclable wastes (e.g., organic matter) being loaded into a gasifier produced by the Japanese firm Kinsei Sangyo to produce a syngas that would fire a small power generation unit. 

The benefits to this proposed facility are several:  reduced expansion of landfills, reduced carbon footprint associated with trucking of wastes, reduced waste management costs for the City, reduced power costs for the City.

It all sounds pretty good, right?  Well, just as no good deed goes unpunished, so too does no good idea go unopposed.

Yesterday, the Plain-Dealer reported on emerging opposition to the proposed project from some community-based environmental activists, notably Ohio Citizen Action.  Their concern is that the plant will cause local air quality immediately surrounding the Ridge Road site to suffer, citing the amount of emissions that would be allowed under the emissions permit anticipated for the facility.

As noted in the article, Mayor Frank Jackson and several Cleveland officials recently visited Japan to meet with Kinsei Sangyo and witness several of their gasifiers in operation.  Two years ago, at the request of Commissioner Henderson, representing the Cleveland Foundation, I joined an earlier fact-finding delegation to Japan to ensure that such an operation would not be a blight or a liability for the Cleveland neighborhoods nearby the Ridge Road site.

We saw three operating Kinsei Sangyo gasifiers on my visit to Japan.  The only discernible emissions were small wisps of steam.  There was minimal odor and sound — certainly far less than what exists at Ridge Road today.  One of the facilities was actually in the middle of a residential section — and bear in mind that Japanese environmental standards are generally more stringent than those in the U.S.

From my perspective, based on actually seeing plants like the one proposed in operation, it is hard to claim that the waste-to-energy facility proposed for Ridge Road would represent a significant diminishment of the local environment.  Ohio Citizen Action is basing their opposition on the emission levels allowed in the permit, as opposed to the emissions that would likely occur if the plant were to be built.  Although Ohio Citizen Action is basing their position on facts, this is an instance of the facts being used in a particular way to achieve a particular outcome — an outcome that may in fact not be in the best public interests.

Those who are against the proposed waste-to-energy facility at Ridge Road should really see one of these plants in operation before making a rush to judgment.

I appreciate the concerns of environmentalists, I really do.  We have a precious planet, and it’s the only one we’ve got. 

However, if you’re going to oppose the development of a project that promises a lot of advantages, including many environmental benefits, you’d better have a pretty damn good alternative to suggest.

For instance, when environmentalists oppose fracking to produce natural gas from shale, they’re also blocking utilization of the lowest-carbon fuel for powerplants and vehicles.  Clearly, if fracking is to be done, it needs to be done responsibly.  But, by barring fracking entirely, would environmental advocates rather we continue to burn so much coal and oil? 

I know the retort:  “We need to move to renewables.”  I get it; look at what I’ve done with my life for the past 15 years if you think otherwise.  But the shift to renewables will take a long time, will be pretty gradual and won’t always be cheap.  Shouldn’t we take a low-cost, large and quick step right now in the environmental direction we want to go?  (And, one that will generate domestic economic benefits to boot?)

I traded emails last week with Steve Brick, Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a long-time consultant and advocate in the clean energy space.  He noted that the “apocalyptic narrative” of the most strident environmentalists is clearly not inspiring to most listeners.  I agreed and responded with the observation that the “game over” rhetoric is not only failing to lead to action on climate change and other environmental concerns, but is feeding fuel to those who want no action — or worse, to unwind the positive movements of the past forty years. 

In my opinion, by stiffening the opposition to environmentalism, the oppositional positions of the most strident environmentalists are not helping the planet.  We have trashy discourse in addition to our ever-growing landfills.

Landfills and Buggy Whips

Progress is never without a price. What we gain on one hand we lose on another. The hope is that when the dust has settled the gains outweigh the losses. The manufacturers of buggy whips didn’t want to go out of business when the automobile arrived on the market. They fought to maintain their market share, and dismissed the automobile as a fad that would pass. It did not pass however, and transportation was revolutionized. The same holds true for manufacturers of vacuum tubes, 8-tracks, VHS tapes, floppy discs, and the list goes on and on. With each leap forward we leave the old way of doing something behind so that we may move onto the better way that technological advance allows us to enjoy.

Since humans have been walking the earth we have been digging holes and burying our trash in them. The basic technique has not changed for thousands of years. You would be challenged to find an industry that has been around longer than the landfill industry. The way we bury has changed a bit since ancient time. We use liners, we mine methane, and we try to mitigate ground water contamination. But the basics are still the same. Dig a hole, fill it with garbage, then cover the hole.

There are more than 3,000 landfills operating in the United States. These landfills are operating under current EPA standards that try to minimize ground water contamination. There are over 50,000 closed landfills that meet no such requirements and have been potentially contaminating ground water for decades. The California State Department of Health estimated that 67% of these old landfills are emitting toxic solvents and gases. The California State Water Resources Control Board found that 83% of these old landfills contaminate ground water supplies.

So, with all the nasty things that go along with landfills, why do we still continue to bury our trash? The answer is two-fold. Just as the buggy whip manufacturers didn’t want to go out of business, neither do the owners and operators of landfills. Cities and towns used to operate their own landfills. From the ‘law of unintended consequences’ bag came the result of the EPA constantly upgrading the requirements governing landfills. Towns and cities began to sell or contract their landfills to private companies. These companies are to quote a landfill manager I spoke with a few months ago, “In the business of burying trash. We’re not interested in anything that will divert that tonnage out of our landfill.” This is where technology meets the buggy whip. Recycling is diverting more tonnage from landfills each year. As a result landfills are fighting back to maintain their tonnage needs. The ability to divert over 90% of the current MSW and C&D going into a landfill into useful products exists today, yet the will is not there because, by and large, communities no longer control the operating landfills. They do control the closed landfills that have long been out of operation. Many of these are off the radar and local officials have no desire to put them ‘on’ the radar and be subject to current EPA standards. A city government official I spoke with a few months ago said, “The EPA doesn’t know about our old landfill so we wouldn’t be interested in emptying it. If they found out about it, it would cost us a fortune.”

We have the ability to not only stop using landfills, but to empty the landfills that dot this country. What we need is the will to do it. With approximately 50,000 closed, old landfills and assuming a typical landfill life span of 40 years, taking in a conservative 65,000 tons per year, valued on the low side at $90 per ton once processed, we have buried treasure of 11.7 trillion dollars beneath our feet. This does not include the trash located and being buried daily in operational landfills today. To process this trash in a 50 year time span would require 4,000 recycling plants employing 900,000 people operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Additionally the health benefits gained by the people living near these old landfills once the landfills are emptied cannot be calculated. It’s time we moved forward. It’s time to lay down the buggy whip that is our antiquated landfill system. It’s time we put people to work. It’s time we really started to recycle our waste, instead of just enough to say we’re doing it.

Guest blog by Don Willis of