Creating Value In Our Everyday Waste


Truck filling with liquid natural gas (LNG) collected from landfills - new design operating at full scale. Image credit:Waste Management

This guest post by Wes Muir of Waste Management outlines the firm's involvement with recent energy innovations, in celebration of Energy Awareness Month.

Sometimes the greatest treasures can come from the most unlikely places. Take renewable energy, for instance. A few decades ago, it was perhaps unfathomable that we could create a variety of energy sources - everything from electricity to fuel - from the items we throw out each day. Yet today, several technologies exist to create clean, renewable energy and fuels from our waste. As we kickoff Energy Awareness Month, let's take a look at how the waste industry works to create value from our discarded materials. While we try to divert as many materials as possible through recycling and other such programs, zero waste remains a goal, not a reality. Therefore, we've found alternative methods for taking waste and turning it into something more beneficial.

Energy creation often begins at the landfill, a place you probably don't think about once your garbage has left the curb. As waste decomposes, it naturally emits methane gas that can be captured in wells drilled into the landfill. We can then use this gas to create alternative fuels used for heating or to generate electricity for homes. This video explains how landfill gas-to-energy is done at Waste Management.

While maybe the most well-known technology, landfill gas-to-energy is certainly not the end all, be all solution for generating renewable energy from waste. A more direct approach taken by some industry pioneers, waste-to-energy, involves converting large volumes of waste into high-pressure steam. Electrical energy can then be generated from the steam, allowing this energy to burn cleaner than fossil fuels. You can learn more about the waste-to-energy process at ThinkGreen.com

Landfill gas-to-energy and waste-to-energy technologies have existed for quite awhile, though both processes continue to be refined in order to produce clean, renewable energy. Yet progress has been made with additional technologies as well. New ventures push the boundaries and explore new ways to create value from solid and organic waste. Here are some examples:


  • Harvest Power deals in organic waste management, from building and operating large-scale organics recycling facilities to marketing a number of compost products. The company is also developing innovative technologies to accelerate the decomposition of organic materials, like food and wood, to produce renewable energy. Their process creates clean biogas, which can be converted into electricity, liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas.

  • Another waste-based technology comes from Enerkem, which uses a thermo-chemical technology to convert waste into biofuels, like ethanol. Its technology can process many carbon-based materials, including municipal solid waste, construction and demolition wood and agricultural products. Similarly, Terrabon develops biofuels from everyday waste.

  • S4 Energy Solutions, a joint venture between Waste Management and InEnTec, is developing a plasma gasification facility. With the plasma enhanced melter technology, waste is heated to extremely high temperatures using an electricity-conducting gas called plasma. This turns the waste into an ultra-clean synthetic gas. The syngas can then be converted into transportation fuels, specialty chemicals and source of energy.

As the discussion surrounding our nation's energy future continues to evolve, it's important to consider the multitude of clean, renewable sources we have right here in our backyard. Even the most unlikely of sources - the things we no longer find useful and throw out - can be much more valuable than we could ever expect.

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