Trash in the Tank

Several Years Ago, Former Vice-President and award-winning environmentalist Al Gore appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and, in a skit based on the premise that he won the 2000 election and was addressing the nation from the Oval Office, said that he had mandated that cars run on trash. The joke got a big laugh from the studio audience, surely in part because the idea seemed a little wacky.

Well, wacky may be getting closer to reality than we could have imagined then. According to a report from the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism newspaper, Lake County, Ind., may soon be home to the “first commercial-scale plants in the country [that] turn garbage into ethanol.”

Indiana Ethanol Power LLC has submitted a proposal to the county's Solid Waste Management District for a facility that would use a process called “weak-acid hydrolysis” to convert trash into roughly 20 million gallons of ethanol a year, the paper says. Meanwhile, Genahol-Powers 1 LLC is seeking the county's permission to build a facility that would burn trash to produce approximately 30 million gallons of ethanol annually.

If the district approves the proposals at a June meeting, then the plants could conceivably be up and running within two years, according to the paper. However, the local Sierra Club is voicing concerns about the technology that would be used in the Genahol plant.

“It's still kind of an old-fashioned technology,” Sandy O'Brien, chair of the Dunelands Sierra Club, told the newspaper. “They'll be burning things they could be recycling, like plastic.”

The Lake County news comes nearly a month after Houston-based Waste Management (WM) announced that it is working with Linde North America to develop a facility that will convert landfill gas into liquefied natural gas (LNG) to fuel WM collection trucks in Northern California. The facility is slated to open next year, and WM says it will produce roughly 13,000 gallons of LNG a day.

Furthermore, a company called Grand Central Recycling has proposed building a plant in City of Industry, Calif., that would process 250 tons of food waste a day into biofuel for its fleet, according to the Sacramento Business Journal.

There's no telling what the long-term viability of trash-to-fuel will be. The above-mentioned projects could very well reveal a whole host of problems.

But with the need to develop new sources of fuel, it's a concept well worth exploring. And as for those of us who laughed at the “Saturday Night Live” skit, who knows — the day may soon be coming when the joke is on us.

Stephen Ursery
The author is the editor of Waste Age