Getting a Grip

For an industry as rock solid as waste management, it takes monumental events and seismic shifts to create dramatic changes. Year in, year out, trash trucks keep rolling. In 2001, however, the terrorist attacks affected all Americans, sending the economy into a slump from which it is only beginning to show signs of recovery.

Part of the subsequent economic fallout that stretched into 2002 appeared to reach recycling. Major urban centers such as New York City cut programs, while other recycling operations began to stagnate. So, at the dawn of 2003, is the industry still shaken or has it returned to business as usual?

There are some indications, somewhat surprisingly, that waste-to-energy (WTE) might be poised for a comeback in light of nationwide concerns about energy and emissions. And advocates believe that it might just pull recycling along with it.

Elsewhere, fleet management issues are an industry focal point. Research into the viability of bioreactor landfills also is ongoing, and landfill managers await news of whether landfill gas (LFG) tax credits will be approved in the 108th Congress.

A Cleaner Fuel

In June 2002, the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., reported that the WTE industry had reduced organic, metal and acid gas emissions from its facilities nationwide by more than 90 percent. The emissions inventory was based on Clean Air Act compliance data from the nation's 66 large-unit WTE plants. The industry had undergone a $1 billion upgrade in pollution control technology, which was required by federal Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) air standards for large unit municipal waste combustors.

The EPA reports that facilities have reduced emissions of dioxin, lead, mercury, particulate matter, hydrogen chloride, cadmium and sulfur by 87 to 99 percent. Now, WTE mercury emissions nationwide represent less than 3 percent of the national inventory of manmade mercury emissions, and WTE facility dioxin emissions represent less than 1 percent of the nation's inventory of dioxin sources.

Armed with this report card, WTE advocates say the industry is seeing an uptick in interest. “I think it's on the cusp of growth,” says Maria Zannes, president of the Integrated Waste Services Association (ISWA), Washington, D.C. “We are looking at expansion of existing facilities. There are places where WTE has been built and is operating, and these cities want more of it. They say it works well.” Municipalities considering expanding their WTE operations, according to Zannes, include Lee County, Fla., Honolulu, as well cities in New Jersey and Massachusetts.

At the moment, WTE capacity has remained fairly constant, although existing facilities have been improved, Zannes says. “There are quite a number of benefits to WTE” she says. “For example, not only has there been an investment in the most modern pollution control technology, but [also] you now have a recognition of the contribution that WTE makes in the reduction of greenhouse gases.”

WTE, Zannes continues, is compatible with recycling and may even boost recycling rates in certain cases. An upcoming report from ISWA states that communities with WTE traditionally recycle at a higher rate — about 33 percent — than the national average. “In most communities with WTE, there is some subsidy or payment for recycling built into the tip fee,” Zannes explains. “There is a direct economic benefit for the trash going to waste-to-energy, but there also is money that goes into recycling.”

Furthermore, WTE operators and their municipal clients find facilities work better when glass, cans or special wastes are separated out. “Instead of two methods of waste disposal that are at odds, they are very synergistic,” Zannes says. “Especially at a time when recycling is not doing as well as it should, the communities that look at WTE are looking at a more holistic, integrated system.”

Because of the environmental controls, burning garbage is still not the least expensive method of waste disposal. Yet WTE does become more competitive in areas that have less land, higher energy prices and denser populations, such as Florida and the Northeast corridor, Zannes says.

Recycling and Saving Energy

Recycling advocates, of course, are quick to point out that recycling and composting save energy, too. It is shortsighted for cities like New York to say that it is not economically feasible to recycle, says Regina Hawkins, recycling coordinator for Gainesville, Fla.

“There are just so many successful programs,” she says. “By and large, recycling programs are not losing money or we would not be doing it. We're avoiding costs, and that's money in the bank for us. People are so tense with thoughts of war in the Middle East and concerns about energy, but no one wants to talk about the energy savings of using secondary materials instead of virgin materials.”

Hawkins struggles to develop and sustain recycling and composting when she is competing with local WTE operations. Still, the city is operating an institutional composting pilot program targeting food waste, which may expand into the local commercial sector.

And there is hope that the continuing affection citizens have for recycling could sustain stagnant programs in 2003 while the economy recovers. “Homeowners want their recycling programs sustained,” says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C. “All the polls show that people love recycling.”

According to Miller, in the coming year, proper recycling and disposal of electronic waste will continue to be an issue. Also in question is whether Congress will mandate an add-on fee at the point of purchase for recycling potentially hazardous materials.

Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, Washington, D.C., agrees that e-waste is one of the top two challenges for recyclers; the other is dealing with away-from-home recycling needs. “More Americans are eating away from home, at public events,” she says. “There is not yet an efficient and cost-effective system to capture recyclables away from home. And with the growing interest in e-waste, there is a growing challenge to those of us who want to develop appropriate infrastructure to find the right solutions.”

Krebs also acknowledges that as long as recycling programs are supported through general funds and not from enterprise or user funds, recycling will be targeted when general funds are shrinking.

“There has been a lot said in different media venues that recycling is shutting down in America,” Krebs says. “Shut down recycling, and you shut down American industry. There are not enough trees or ore to keep our mills running, but the newspapers, cans, bottles and boxes recovered by America's recycling programs keep American industries running.”

Giving Credit to Landfill Gas?

The landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) industry may receive a boost in 2003, if Congress considers and approves tax credits for LFG projects. But this legislation is likely to pass only if it is bundled into an overall energy bill, as it was in the 107th Congress. “If it's going to happen, it needs to be early on as part of the energy bill,” says Bill Sells, director of federal programs for EIA. “With the sluggish economy, there is no telling how much money will be available for tax breaks. LFG makes sense, but it ultimately will depend on how much it costs to make it attractive … Tax breaks often are more difficult to pass in election years.”

Meantime, the EPA reports that the green power market is “flourishing.” EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) has continued to develop LFG projects. In December, more than 320 organizations had signed voluntary agreements to work with the EPA to develop cost-effective LFG projects, including every major LFG project development company. The program also has developed detailed profiles for more than 1,300 candidate landfills in 31 states, and has data for more landfills in all states. Several candidate landfill representatives are actively looking for LFG partners, LMOP says.

Some recycling and composting advocates oppose LFG tax credits, arguing that they provide an incentive to keep disposing of waste at landfills. “The cumulative weight of all subsidies for [nonrecycling activities], when added to the ‘subsidy’ of externalizing the full cost of environmental impacts, has made the price of landfilling appear to be a fraction of its true cost,” says the Athens, Ga.-based Grassroots Recycling Network in a statement. “That makes it difficult for composting to compete in the marketplace, although composting avoids the environmental problems created by landfilling organics.”

Still Studying Bioreactors

While the industry awaits news of LFG gas credits, efforts to study the viability of bioreactor landfills will continue into 2003. The EPA is finalizing its rule on research, development and demonstration (RD&D) permits for MSW landfills that allow approved states to waive or alter Subtitle D rules for research programs. This rule would ostensibly foster ongoing research into bioreactors and their environmental impacts. According to EPA's Dwight Hlustick, the final rule is expected sometime in the first quarter of 2003.

Environmentalists have said the rule is designed to deregulate the landfill industry without really promoting innovation. “For one thing, innovation is neither defined nor limited in the proposed rule, and it is not subject to any federal oversight,” says Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York. “As a practical matter, that means the rule's waivers could be given to anyone.”

As the final touches are put into the rule, EPA also is continuing its State-of-the-Practice Bioreactor Landfill Study, which compares data from bioreactor landfills with that from traditional dry landfills. This work involves studying alternative liner designs for leachate recirculation and bioreactor landfills; impacts of leachate quality, quantity and loading on the liner system; and leachate recirculation and its affect on the rate and extent of landfill stabilization. The EPA is sponsoring a bioreactor workshop in late February in Arlington, Va.

Moving Things Along

But even as the industry studies bioreactors, the number of landfills continues to decrease. This has continued to boost waste transfer. In 2003, as major municipalities look into building or moving their waste to transfer stations, they are increasingly considering rail as the means of transporting trash.

“In the high-density areas like New York and Los Angeles, those communities are looking at landfill closure and remote disposal needs, even out of state,” says John Dempsey, vice president of HDR Inc, Omaha, Neb. “Large-volume generators and major metro areas are starting to realize that they generate enough volume that their options are not limited to short-duration haul. If you have 5,000 tons of waste, the possibility of putting it on a rail and sending it substantially further becomes economically viable because of the economies of rail and the volume of materials.”

Regarding energy and fuel consumption, Dempsey notes that transfer stations always have represented a reduction in air emissions, because they consolidate the amount of emissions from mobile sources. During a fuel shortage, he adds, transfer stations might be a viable alternative. “To the extent that fuel prices represent a significant part of the transportation costs, a community might look at a transfer station as a way of mitigating a direct cost on a fleet,” Dempsey says.

Waste fleets nationwide already have moved toward using cleaner fuels. In October the EPA issued a rule that heavy-duty diesel engines must lower their emissions of particulate matter, nitrous oxides and non-methane hydro-carbons over the next seven years. In 2004, the rule will be expanded to include medium- and light-duty diesel truck engines. By 2010, diesel engines will have 1/10th the emissions of 2001 models. Already, cities such as Los Angeles are beginning to switch to natural gas for their waste fleets. The city, which had already converted its fleet to low-sulfur diesel fuel, has purchased dual-fuel trucks made by Denton, Texas-based Peterbilt. The trucks use diesel fuel as the ignition source, then switch to natural gas once the engine has started.

As for the interstate movement of waste, the elections may have tipped the scale in favor of restricting trash transport across state lines. With Sen. Jim Imhofe, R-Okla., at the helm of the Environmental and Public Works committee, three of his Republican colleagues may have an opportunity to advance interstate legislation, according to EIA's Sells. Senators John Warner, R-Va., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, each sponsored legislation to restrict interstate waste movement in the 107th Congress.

“The industry will have to be diligent in fending off any new attempts in the next Congress,” Sells says. “The good news is the interstate waste issue still is largely a regional one with limited national appeal, so there will be little urgency to take up interstate legislation in the full Senate.”

Whether those trash trucks will be moving across state lines or just through the neighborhood, they will continue to need fuel. With an ongoing crisis in the Middle East, the waste industry is likely to continue seeking opportunities to save energy, create energy from other sources or turn to alternative fuels. But whether there will be enough incentives in 2003 to recycle, or convert trash or LFG into energy, remains to be seen.

Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.