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An Alternative to Landfills for Waste Disposal: Plasma Gasification by Adam Adkin

Posted by: | March 18, 2011 Comments Off on An Alternative to Landfills for Waste Disposal: Plasma Gasification by Adam Adkin |

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This motto is at the heart of the waste reduction movement and has been taught to school children throughout the United States since 1970.[i] Waste reduction has seen some success over recent years: in many parts of the United States, simple waste reduction techniques such as recycling, compositing, and using reusable bags have transformed from the environmental practices of a few individuals to the social norm.

Despite waste education efforts and some adoption of waste reduction methods, the United States continues to produce massive amounts of waste. From 1980 to 2008, the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW)—waste from residences and commercial facilities—produced per capita each day increased by almost one pound to 4.5 pounds.[ii] In total, the United States generated 250 million tons of MSW in 2008, over 50% of which ended up buried in landfills.[iii]

Landfills are a major problem in the United States. Landfills pose a risk of leaking toxins and contaminating local water sources.[iv] Additionally, as waste in landfills decomposes, it produces the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide.[v] In 2008, U.S. landfills released 30 million metric tons of methane.[vi] Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for more than a decade has been encouraging landfill gas collection and combustion as a means of reducing the environmental damage that landfills cause, in 2007 landfills still released 23% of human-source methane.[vii]

A new technology, plasma gasification, has the potential to reduce the amount of waste interned in landfills. A number of academics and emerging businesses contend that plasma gasification is a commercially viable means of not only disposing of MSW, but also of generating electricity.[viii]

Plasma gasification disposes of MSW by exposing the MSW to either a plasma arc or plasma torch in an oxygen deprived environment. The plasma arc or torch produces so much heat that it causes the MSW to alter its molecular state and transform into steam, synthetic gas (syngas), and slag material.[ix] Because oxygen is not present during this process, no burning occurs, and the gasification is performed in a closed loop, so no emissions escape.[x]

Proponents of MSW gasification suggest that gasification facilities may combust the byproduct syngas to produce electricity. Those proponents suggest that this gas has approximately the same BTU as natural gas and that combusting the syngas produces approximately the same emissions as combusting natural gas.[xi] They also contend that combustion of the syngas, unlike direct combustion of MSW, will not produce dioxins, fly ash, or bottom ash.[xii] Although combusting the syngas will produce carbon dioxide, gasifying MSW avoids the methane and carbon dioxide that the MSW would have produced as it decomposed in a landfill. However, the release of landfill gases would have occurred over a longer period of time. Proponents of MSW gasification also claim that the byproduct slag is non-toxic and can be used for construction and insulation.[xiii]

Some commentators have expressed doubts about whether the emissions of MSW gasification facilities are as benign as proponents of MSW gasification suggest. Specifically, some organizations argue that plasma gasification facilities will emit toxic pollutants and contaminated wastewater.[xiv]

Although no MSW gasification facilities presently operate in the United States, private companies have begun the development of facilities in Louisiana, Florida, and California.[xv] These companies support the viability of their technology with a number of investigations testing gasification technology and examining the experiences of MSW gasification facilities abroad.[xvi] Nonetheless, some commentators argue that experience with plasma gasification technology is only theoretical and small-scale thus far and that this experience does not prove what will result from industrial application of the technology.[xvii]

No one wants a facility that is destroying trash in their backyard, but neither does anyone want a landfill in their backyard. As time goes on, our demand for land where we can bury our trash is only going to increase, and the damages that landfills cause will also increase as the buried trash continues to decompose. The people of the United States need to begin to consider other options for handling our wastes.

Concerns about the environmental impacts of MSW gasification should be taken seriously. Nonetheless, we will never discover alternatives to landfills unless we are willing to allow commercial development of new waste disposal techniques. MSW gasification facilities offer the ability to capture additional value from waste that would otherwise be discarded. Not only will MSW gasification produce energy, it also has the potential to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that MSW generates. Finally, even assuming the byproduct slag cannot be used for commercial purposes, it will occupy significantly less space in a landfill than the MSW that generated the slag.

As a means of enabling the development of alternative waste disposal techniques without unduly endangering local communities and the environment, local governments could condition the granting of building or operating permits for gasification facilities on the satisfaction of certain conditions. Local governments could issue temporary or conditional permits that require gasification companies to pay for independent monitoring of the emissions of their gasification facilities over a period of five to ten years. The permit could require that the independent monitor make periodic reports to the local government and grant the local government the ability to suspend the operations of the gasification facility if the facility’s emissions exceed certain standards.

Additionally, at the end of the period of the temporary or conditional permit, the government could require that the gasification facility proceed through the permitting process a second time, relying on the accumulated data from the independent monitoring. This would grant the companies endeavoring to develop MSW gasification the ability to prove the benefits of their technology while also enabling local communities to make informed decisions about whether they wish to retain MSW gasification facilities after living with those facilities.

MSW gasification is not the answer to our waste problems: efforts still need to be made to encourage individuals to change their consumption patterns and generate less waste. Nonetheless, controlling and changing individual behavior is difficult to do and takes a long time. MSW plasma gasification technology has enough potential to gain additional value from our wastes and reduce our reliance on landfills for waste disposal that it deserves serious consideration.

[i] Kelley Ambrose, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle or Waste, Waste, Waste?, New Comm Ave, http://www.newcommave.com/content/reduce-reuse-recycle

[ii] EPA, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008 1, http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2008rpt.pdf.

[iii] Id. at 1, 2.

[iv] See EPA, Criteria for Solid Waste Disposal Facilities: A Guide for Owners/Operators 4 (1993), http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/landfill/criteria/landbig.pdf.

[v] Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), EPA, Frequently Asked Questions, http://www.epa.gov/lmop/faq/landfill-gas.html.

[vi] LMOP, EPA, Basic Information, http://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-info/index.html.

[vii] See Victoria Ludwig, EPA, An Overview of Landfill Gas Energy in the United States, http://www.epa.gov/lmop/documents/pdfs/conf/central-america/overview_landfill_gas_energy_us.pdf; EPA, Methane: Sources and Emissions, http://www.epa.gov/methane/sources.html#anthropogenic.

[viii] See Caroline Ducharme & Nickolas Themelis, Analysis of Thermal Plasma-Assisted Waste-to-Energy Processes (Proceedings of the 18th Annual North American Waste-to-Energy Conference, NAWTEC18, 2010); Louis J. Circeo, Director, Plasma Applications Research Program of Georgia Tech, Plasma Arc Gasification of Municipal Solid Waste, http://www.energy.ca.gov/proceedings/2008-ALT-1/documents/2009-02-17_workshop/presentations/Louis_Circeo-Georgia_Tech_Research_Institute.pdf; Sun Energy Group, www.sunenergygrp.com; Jacoby Group, Geoplasma, http://www.geoplasma.com.

[ix] See Ducharme & Themelis, supra note viii.

[x] Sun Energy Group, Renewable Energy, http://www.sunenergygrp.com/renewable_energy.shtml; Renewable Energy Technologies, Plasma Gasification, http://cogeneration.net/plasma_gasification.htm.

[xi] Sun Energy Group, Frequently Asked Questions, http://www.sunenergygrp.com/faq.shtml [hereinafter, Sun Energy Group, FAQ].

[xii] Maxim Selkin & GeorgiyGeletukha, Development of Ecologically Friendly Technology for Gasification of Municipal Solid Waste, in Assessment of Hydrogen Energy for Sustainable Development 243 (NATO, 2007); Sun Energy Group, Frequently Asked Questions, http://www.sunenergygrp.com/faq.shtml; Renewable Energy Technologies, supra note x.

[xiii] Sun Energy Group, FAQ, supra note xi.

[xiv] See Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Evaluation of Sun Energy Group’s Website Claims: July 7, 2009: Claims versus Reality, http://www.greenaction.org/incinerators/neworleans/documents/FactSheetSunEnergyWebClaims.pdf

[xv] See Sun Energy Group, www.sunenergygrp.com; Jacoby Group, Geoplasma, http://www.geoplasma.com; Plasco Energy Group, http://www.plascoenergygroup.com/our-opportunities.

[xvi] See Caroline Ducharme & Themelis, supra note viii; Circeo, supra note viii; Juniper Consultancy Services Limited, Independent Waste Technology Report (2008), http://www.enonac.org/documents/issues/sun.energy/juniper.pdf; See Stephen Goff et at., MSW Gasification—Understanding the Challenges, (Proceedings of the 16th Annual North American Waste-to-Energy Conference, NAWTEC16-1952, 2008), http://www.seas.columbia.edu/earth/wtert/sofos/nawtec/nawtec16/nawtec16-1952.pdf.

[xvii] Goff et al., supra note xv, at 1.

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