Landfills Case Study

Trash Isn’t Always Dirty

How Waste Management is helping to turn trash into clean energy.

Kit Cole

Most of us don’t put a lot of thought in to our trash once it leaves our front door; we may give it a cursory glance as it is hauled away never to be seen again. However, what many of us don’t know is that more and more of our trash—or the byproducts of it, at least—are being used in creative ways to power our daily lives. We never counted on it, but the trash is no longer just being taken out: Waste Management is devising the technology to bring it back in.

It seems like an undoubtedly complicated process, but the concept is actually simple. Many landfills’ accumulated trash, and during its decomposition process, it creates naturally occurring methane gas. This gas, which was previously noticed only for its distinct smell, is now being harvested by landfill operators to create a multitude of substances, including electricity to power our homes and even clean-burning fuel for collection vehicles. One such landfill includes Waste Management’s Simi Valley, CA Landfill and Recycling Center (SVLRC).

Simi Valley, CA

The SVLRC is on the cutting edge of converting municipal solid waste into clean burning energy. Currently, the methane gas harvested from this landfill is burned to produce enough power for an astonishing 2,500 homes. Should their proposed expansion plan proceed, this number will double to 5,000. How is this done, you may ask? The methane gas is filtered through a network of tubing located throughout the landfill, maneuvering the gas to a flare, where the methane is burned and the resulting energy is harvested and used to power homes.

This makes trash something of a gift that keeps on giving, especially because this methane gas is an already existent, inevitable part of the landfill process. One could even say this epitomizes the concept of recycling: what a strange thought to think that the banana peel you threw away last week could be working to enable you to cheaply and greenly turn on your lights, your computer, your radio?

This isn’t the only project in which the SVLRC is involved. Recently, the SVLRC announced its candidacy for another exciting project currently pending approval. This project involves the creation of Bio-Liquefied Natural Gas (or Bio-LNG) to fuel collection vehicles. The creation of Bio-LNG also involves methane gas, but adds an extra step. Instead of simply harvesting the gas in its natural, vaporous form, the gas is instead filtered through a cooling system. The cooling process allows the gas to be compressed in to a liquid form, which can then be used to fuel collection vehicles.

LNG fuel has the lowest “carbon intensity,” which is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “the amount of carbon by weight emitted per unit of energy consumed,” as compared to any other fuel. In laymen’s terms, this means LNG offers an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than any conventional diesel or gasoline fuel. In fact, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has even declared LNG its new “Low Carbon Fuel Standard,” a standard defined in the Governor’s Executive Summary on the topic as one that “requires fuel providers in California to ensure that the mix of fuel they sell into the California market meet, on average, a declining standard for GHG emissions measured in CO2 equivalent gram per unit of fuel energy sold.”

Altamont, CA

The SVLRC will not be the first to participate in this kind of program. In fact, Waste Management already operates the largest Bio-LNG production facility in the world in Altamont, CA, a Bay Area city. The facility is the result of a partnership between Waste Management and Linde Industries, a global gases and engineering company.

Completed in November 2009, the use of the clean, renewable landfill LNG at the Altamont Landfill alone is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 30,000 tons a year. Already, Waste Management operates 750 LNG trucks in California alone and hopes to expand this number even further with the SVLRC Bio-LNG Production Facility, which is planned to be even bigger than the Altamont Facility.

The Altamont Facility has attracted a lot of attention across the nation, garnering recognition from the U.S. EPA, the Climate Change Business Journal, the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities Coalition, the California Energy Commission (CEC) and CARB. This includes the “2009 Project of the Year Award,” the “2009 Business Achievement Award for Transportation Technology Merit” and the “2009 Clean Air Champion Award.”

The Bio-LNG Facility at the SVLRC is planned to be an improved version of the Altamont Facility, aiming to improve on both the efficiency and technology. The SVLRC Facility is also planned to produce up to 40 percent more LNG than at Altamont, offering up to 6 million gallons of Bio-LNG per year.

An Exciting Step

The use of Bio-LNG isn’t good for just the environment. This new industry also creates jobs (the SVLRC project alone is expected to create 299 jobs) and reduces an already choking dependency on foreign fossil fuels, which subjects us to emissions and volatile pricing. In fact, the use of Bio-LNG at the SVLRC alone is projected to displace 4.43 million gallons of diesel fuel a year.

Highlighted by James D. Bond of the CEC as a “biomass success story” and a “win-win for everyone,” the use of Bio-LNG to fuel vehicles is an exciting step in Waste Management’s quest to create an entirely clean-burning trash collection fleet. What’s more is that it highlights a change in mindset about what trash has to mean. Whereas before landfills signified in people’s minds something that literally had to be buried, it can now represent a large part of conservationism, clean energy and a greener planet. Bio-LNG helps reduce emissions, creates jobs and protects our economy from a dependency we’ve long outgrown: what’s not to love?

Kit Cole is the Director of External Affairs for Waste Management (Houston, TX). He has worked for Waste Management for more than six years, with previous experience at California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA). With her combined experience in both government and private industry, “going green” is not only an area of expertise, but also a point of pride. For more information on greener electricity or Bio-LNG, you may contact Kit at (818) 822-6378 or via e-mail at [email protected].

Waste Management provides comprehensive waste management services throughout North America. Waste Management’s subsidiaries provide collection, transfer, recycling and resource recovery, and disposal services. The company is also a developer, operator and owner of waste-to-energy and landfill gas-to-energy facilities in the U.S. Customers include residential, commercial, industrial and municipal customers throughout North America.