One of the biggest opportunities facing the waste management industry today is that of making a transition from a traditional waste-disposal-oriented industry to a comprehensive resource-management industry. This will require solid waste managers to think of themselves as suppliers of raw material and energy resources rather than as managers or disposers of discarded wastes. Their goal should be to produce high-quality and reliable supplies of recycled materials and recovered energy that meets their customers’ requirements at prices that are competitive with other material and energy supplies.
Resource management starts by recognizing that our discarded products are in fact potential material and energy resources that can be harnessed and put to use. In order to do this most efficiently, products must be designed from the outset to produce less waste and to facilitate resource recovery and recycling. This can be accomplished through product stewardship efforts where producers take responsibility for a product throughout its entire life cycle, including responsibility for seeing that the product is recycled or recovered at the end of its useful life. Product stewardship involves a fundamental shift from waste management that is government financed and ratepayer funded, to resource management where producers are being called on to take responsibility for recovering the resources inherent in discarded products.
Forty states and provinces in the US and Canada actually have adopted various types of product stewardship laws. Originally, these laws focused on computers, consumer electronics, and products containing mercury. Now, however, they are being expanded to cover a wider array of products.
Resource management also requires companies to understand that waste generation represents an economic inefficiency in the production process and that by reducing wastes they can lower costs and make better use of economic resources. This understanding is growing in North America, and more and more enterprises are setting zero-waste goals and developing programs to significantly reduce and recover the wastes generated in their facilities. Zero waste is a commitment to maximizing waste reduction, minimizing waste disposal, and maximizing downstream resource recovery through recycling and composting. While the national recycling and composting rate in the US was 34% in 2009, a number of countries with economies similar to ours have recycling rates that are nearly double that level. So there is significant progress to be made and corporate zero-waste programs can be an important part of that progress.
Resource management also involves recovering energy resources that are contained in waste discards. Waste-to-energy facilities can recover this energy through controlled combustion of solid waste in modern furnaces with state-of-the art pollution controls. Waste-to-energy facilities can generate clean, renewable energy in the form of steam or electricity. Twenty-nine states and territories define waste-to-energy as renewable energy under various statutes and regulations.
There are currently 86 waste-to-energy facilities in the US, representing over $14 billion in assets generating 2,700 MW of electricity. There are also a number of new facilities under development and several existing facilities have expanded their capacity considerably. As federal, state, and provincial governments put in place programs to make our energy supplies more secure and less reliant on fossil fuels, policy makers need to give full consideration to waste-to-energy as a reliable, local, renewable energy resource.
A resource management approach would also strive to derive the highest resource value from waste materials. Some of the newer conversion technologies attempt to transform wastes into various high-value fuels and chemical feedstocks, which could result in significantly higher revenues than the electricity or steam produced by conventional waste-to-energy plants. These technologies include gasification, pyrolysis, plasma arc, hydrolysis, and anaerobic digestion. While many of these new technologies are still at the research or pilot plant stage, several of them are being constructed at the larger demonstration scale level. There is considerable interest in conversion technologies, with planning and feasibility studies being conducted in dozens of communities.
A resource management perspective would also recognize that there are resources that can be recovered from waste materials even after they have been disposed of. The methane gas generated from the decomposition of organic materials in landfills represents an excellent opportunity to capture and use a significant energy resource. Landfill methane can be collected in high-efficiency gas collection systems and can be used as a fuel in engines, furnaces, or vehicles. Landfill methane combusted in an engine-generator set can produce electricity. Landfill methane gas is a renewable energy source and has been recognized as such in federal, state, and provincial legislation throughout the US and Canada.
Currently, there are over 550 operational landfill gas-to-energy projects in the US, creating 1,697 MW of electricity and producing 309 million standard cubic feet per day of renewable fuel. However, there are nearly twice as many landfills throughout North America that have the potential to capture and utilize landfill gas, and this should be facilitated and encouraged as part of any resource management strategy.
Once the focus is expanded to resource management instead of limited to waste management, integration of resource recovery activities with other renewable energy technologies can open up some interesting new possibilities. Wind turbines can be installed at landfill sites, and the energy produced can be tied into the system, recovering electricity from the landfill methane. Solar panels can be installed over landfill covers or on transfer station roofs and the electricity can be used onsite or fed into the electric grid. A resource management perspective can also lead to some innovative recycling approaches, for example, where closed landfills are mined to recover material and energy resources. What was previously thought of only as a disposal facility can be transformed into an integrated material resource-renewable energy complex. Such facilities can become integral components of comprehensive resource management strategies while continuing to provide needed waste disposal services.