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Episode 63: Behold…A Renewable Landfill for the Ages (Transcript)

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[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:25] Liz: Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Emily Dyson Director of Science Research and Development at BioHiTech Global. Hi, Emily, thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:37] Emily Dyson: Hi, Liz. Thank you for having me.

[00:00:39] Liz: I would love to hear more about your background and how you found yourself in this industry.

[00:00:44] Emily: Seems like it's a long story, but it's really not. I started 30 years ago there, graduated with a degree in environmental science from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, one of the SUNY schools, and knew that environmental was my passion. I've known that since about seventh grade that that was really what I wanted to focus on. The first part of my career, I really focused on writing environmental impact statements and doing just general environmental consulting.

I was with a large company, then from the large company, I was with them for 10 years. Then, for 12 years, I was with a small environmental consulting firm. There was probably six of us. From there, really, is where the Entsorga project starts to come into play. I owned my own business for about five years and in that time, I was contacted by Entsorga Italia. That time, their partner, who wanted to build a HEBioT, High Efficiency Biological Treatment facility in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

I took that opportunity to work with them, thinking that I was just going to do the environmental permitting. It was a good size permitting job for an individual in a single person company. Took that on and was really intrigued by the technology, and the potential that that technology had in changing the way waste management was going to be done. It was going to create basically a renewable landfill and was really different. It was out of the box. It wasn't just recycling, it wasn't just composting, it was a mash-up of the two that was going to really be able to work for the small and the medium-sized municipalities.

I did the environmental permitting and really got involved in assisting, in looking at design, and really how it would operate. From there, that's when BioHiTech became involved in the project. Frank Celli, who's the CEO of BioHiTech, reached out to me and said, "Hey, I found somebody that we want to really focus on the HEBioT technologies, as well as some of the other science aspects of BioHiTech", I was like, "Great. Tell me who it is. Be happy to hand over things to them", and he was like, "It's you", I was like, "No, Frank. I own a company." He's a very persuasive individual.

We talked several times and, basically, I decided I could go and work for BioHiTech. I think it was a good move in that BioHiTech shares the vision that I had all along, of trying to find ways to turn waste into a commodity, ways to change the mindset of the use of landfills, and to add another tool to the global toolbox of waste management. That's what I think about our HEBioT technology is. We are another tool in the toolbox, to try and change how waste management is done.

[00:03:59] Liz: I love that. What a great story [laughs]. He sounds very convincing, obviously. Emily, can you tell us about that facility in West Virginia?

[00:04:12] Emily: Sure. It's about 56,000 square foot building. It looks like a warehouse from the street. You would never know that it has, at any given time, upwards of 4,000 tons of municipal solid waste inside with anywhere from 100 to 200 more tons of what we call commercial and industrial waste. That waste is the large plastics, the heavy fiber material, cardboard, the morph residual, the plastics that because of the recycling industry, and the way that it has turned, there's a lot of places that can't do anything with the numbers four through seven plastic. We can use those and turn them into fuel.

We've got MSW coming in, we've got commercial and industrial waste coming in. What we do with that is, we send it through a separation process to start with. This is just the MSW to start with. The MSW comes in on standard trash trucks. Right now, Apple Valley Waste is our hauler that provides us what we call feedstock, some people might call it waste. We work very hard at Entsorga, making sure that we know that we are a manufacturing operation.

We are not just a waste facility. We produce a valuable fuel commodity that has a high BTU value, so we really stress that. That inbound waste is feedstock for us. The waste comes in, at that point it is separated into what we call the overs and the unders. The overs are the big cardboard, the big plastics, the big carpet, curtains, that type of thing that people just throw in their trash, and set it by the curb, so that is separated out.

The unders is the smaller than seven-inch pieces. That would include your organics and anything else that would be that smaller fragment of the waste. That under goes into a pit where it stays until it is moved by overhead crane into what we call the bio-oxidation hall. In the bio-oxidation hall, we have 26 rows of MSW that is sitting over a fan system where the air is either getting pushed or pulled out of that area. It looks like windrows you would see in a composting facility. The air is getting sucked out by a patented fan system that's across the back.

In our partners in Entsorga Italia really- that's what I like to call the secret sauce of our facility, that air circulation system that's drawing out the air. That air is all going through an outdoor biofilter. The biofilter is about 154 feet long and about nine feet tall, and it's full of hardwood mulch. The reason that we use hardwood is that the natural microorganisms within the hardwood actually eat the odor chains that would come out from that moist air that we're pulling out of 4,000 tons of MSW.

While you're standing by the building you do not smell trash. You might get whiffs of mulch, but what you really smell is fresh air. Once that material is in the bio-oxidation hall, it is picked up when it's ready, so the entire process is automated. From the time that the trucks dump into the pits, to the use of overhead cranes which are on, basically, a geo-locator grid on the rails of the crane. We can set up missions and say, "Today we're going to clear sectors two, three, and four," we tell the crane that that's the mission and it spends the day cleaning out those sectors.

Those materials have been dried and we know how many hours they've been in there, we know in general what their humidity and what their temperatures are, so we know when they're ready to be made into fuel. That material is picked up from the bio-oxidation hall and put into what we call the primary shredder. At that point, we're also adding commercial and industrial waste to it, so we're getting a nice mix of overs, which go straight to the shredder. Unders, which are coming out of the bio-oxidation hall and into the shredder, and commercial and industrial material. It gets blended and put through the shredder, then it's time for it to move into the refinement process.

That's really where we start making the fuels. Our feedstock has now entered into refinement, we're pulling out all of the metals, we're pulling out the glass, the rocks, and the dirt. The things that just can't be made into fuel. From that perspective, we actually improve the recycling rates of the local community, because metals, both ferrous and non-ferrous, that were in people's trash and were destined for a landfill are now being pulled out and put back into the recycling stream.

Some of the things that we've found is that getting those metals clean enough has been a challenge, but we're working with a couple of different organizations to figure out how to clean those metals to put them into the recycling market. We also pull out polyvinyl chloride. Chlorine is one of the key chemicals that we have to monitor very closely because our fuel is going to the cement industry. We need to make sure that we don't have chlorine because that fouls their system.

Once the material, the PVC has been pulled out, the metals have been pulled out, then it's ready to go through the secondary shredder which takes it down to the three by three by half inch, which is the specification which is in the EPA comfort letter that we have. They no longer issue EPA comfort letters, but this is a letter from the EPA saying that we are a valuable fuel commodity, that we are no longer a waste, and it takes us out of any of the waste regulation when it comes to the shipment of the fuel.

We break it down into that three by three by one, it goes through a truckload out, we use walking for trailers. We are located in the Entsorga West Virginia facility, is located about two miles from our offtake partner Argos USA. We have the perfect storm, so to speak, right there in West Virginia because the community generates the waste, we take it as feedstock and we are able to create a fuel that burns cleaner than coal. It takes about a ton and a half of SRF to equal one ton of coal. Our BTU values are anywhere from 8,500 to 10,500 BTU which is comparable to coal.

We burn cleaner, it's about one-ton offset of carbon equivalent when you use the SRF in place of the coal. The intention of the cement industry is to use it to up to 30% of an offset for coal, we're just now ramping up in Entsorga West Virginia and Argos but we're getting there. We’re getting there quicker than what I had expected. It's been a long haul, it took a couple of years for the construction. When you're the first in the country, you've got hiccups along the way but I think we're definitely reaching our end goal lines, and I am very confident that we are making high-quality fuel that will be that could be an excellent substitute for fossil fuels.

[00:11:54] Liz: That's fantastic. Now, did you model this after a European facility, Emily?

[00:11:59] Emily: Yes. Entsorga Italia who the technology partner, they have nine of these facilities throughout Europe and one in Africa. Our specific plant in West Virginia is actually modeled off of their plant, the Wiltshire plant in south of London, about two hours south of London. That is owned and operated by a third party but is Entsorga Italia technology.

[00:12:23] Liz: That's great. Do you have markets for the fuel?

[00:12:27] Emily: Yes. Argos USA is our primary offtake, we also have one other offtake cement partner in Pennsylvania. That pretty much takes all the fuel that I can make. Our facility is permitted to take in a hundred and ten thousand tons per year of MSW, of that 110 we're hoping to get about 80 to 85,000 tons of MSW, and the rest of it to be the commercial and industrial materials coming in. We're seeing a real uptake in the commercial and industrial side of things.

We have some other opportunities that we're just now getting started with, some really exciting opportunities to use the SRF in other polymer technologies and things like that where people are reaching out to us and asking us for samples of the SRF to see what they can do with it, what they can make with it. I think there's some real game-changing possibilities, not just in landfill diversion but also in what that material can be used for down the line.

[00:13:32] Liz: I bet. That's exciting too for you guys, to be part of that.

[00:13:36] Emily: It absolutely is. If we truly can get into the polymer technologies and we can get into add-on technologies to what we currently have, thermal processing, and things like that so that we open the door to other fuel users. It's the first plant, we're taking our baby steps but I think the possibilities of using our fuel for coal fire power plants, steam generators, pretty much anybody that would use a fossil fuel, I think is real. I'm really confident that the research that we're doing, and the people that we're talking to that have those existing technologies, we're going to mesh really well.

[00:14:19] Liz: It sounds like it. What else is unique about the technology that you're using?

[00:14:24] Emily: I don't know of any other place in the United States that has basically a renewable landfill inside a building. I think the fact that we pull out the metals so that we add to that recycling rate versus having all that going to a landfill. I think the process that we have set up-- there's other facilities certainly in the United States that have set up ways of pulling material out beforehand before it gets turned into a fuel, but there's far more energy-intensive, they take a lot more labor.

Ours is relatively- we're an energy user but in comparison, we're not as much. We have 20 employees that run on two shifts -that's all it takes to run the entire operation- to bring in 200 plus tons a day of MSW into a facility and only have 10 people on a shift, and that includes the administrative folks. As far as labor and maintenance goes, there's only seven at most eight guys on a shift. I think that's pretty impressive. From the road, it's our goal to never be seen as a waste facility from the road. You look at us and you think that we were an industrial, a manufacturer of some sort.

[00:15:44] Liz: It sounds like you're doing that, especially like you're saying, there isn't even an odor issue so you're good neighbors, for sure. [chuckles]

[00:15:52] Emily: We're certainly trying. One of the things that I've spent some time doing is reaching out to the neighbors, we've given over 700 tours in groups and just as individuals, that have wanted to know about the technology. I feel very strongly that educate people in what the possibilities are for this plant, are critical for the success of us going forward. We have a housing development of about 250 homes within a half a mile of our facility.

It's important to me that we keep in touch with the homeowners’ association, and make sure that they're satisfied with us as their partners in working with waste in that community. We actually got a letter from them telling us that we were doing a good job and we were good neighbors. I don't think there's many waste places that have the neighbors sending you letters thanking you for being a good neighbor.

[00:16:54] Liz: No, I don't think so. That, definitely, major accolades there [laughs].

[00:17:00] Emily: Yes. I'm not saying we're perfect but we try really hard to be a part of the community.

[00:17:07] Liz: That's great. Beyond the residents themselves, how was it working with the municipalities there?

[00:17:13] Emily: Some of it is mandated basically, through the West Virginia Public Service Commission. West Virginia's waste setup is that you have to have a certificate of need in order to operate, so the state of West Virginia basically has control over who comes into the communities. Apple Valley Waste, who is the provider of the waste the feedstock for us, has the certificate of need to do residential pickup in the five surrounding counties, so that's where our inbound comes from.

We're also working with Republic and Waste Management. We have loads that come in from them. I think one of the biggest takeaways for me so far has been the fact that when you talk about Waste Management and Republic, those are huge waste companies that are turning to [unintelligible 00:18:03] Entsorga West Virginia as a place to bring their waste.

Their drivers are very happy to come to our facility. There's not a long line, they're not waiting at a landfill. Maintenance cost on trucks is greatly reduced because they're not driving up the hills of landfills with nails and all the other things that come with the maintenance of having trucks do that. As far as new municipalities, we're still working to bring in more municipalities, but it's been very encouraging the number of municipalities that have visited us that aren't just interested in bringing us waste, but are interested in having one of these built-in their communities because it's a viable alternative.

It's not even alternative, it's a viable addition to looking at how to manage for an entire community. If we can extend the life of the landfill by upwards of 500 years because we're taking, sort to speak, the low-hanging fruit. We've got the organics that we can take, a lot of that just general residential, that opens up airspace in the landfills to take a lot of the materials that you just can't do anything else with, you can't do anything but landfill it.

That's why I refer to the heavy at the high-efficiency biological treatment technology as one tool within the whole bag of tricks that can be used for waste management.

[00:19:27] Liz: Absolutely. I think that people will be looking to you even beyond the residents, like you're saying, Waste Management and Republic because everyone needs to extend the life of the landfill. And safety of their people as well, so this is great, I love hearing about this. I know that you said this was really based on a European standard, is there anything else we can learn from Europeans about waste?

[00:19:56] Emily: Europeans from the standpoint of what they waste, we could certainly take something from them on that. The Europeans buy their food every day, you don't see big refrigerators in a house in Europe, and because of that they have very limited food waste. Their packaging, they're not necessarily packaging everything wrapped in Saran wrap or plastic wrap. From that perspective.

Plastic bag, you don't see people buying things in plastic bags. There's a lot more of the reusable bags, and I think with knowing that it's possible to live with a lot less waste than what we do. I think that should be the first goal of everybody, to reduce the waste that we put out. If you follow the waste hierarchy, is, "Don't make the waste", and then, "Reuse the waste you have", and, "Reuse recycle." Then you come in to the composting, then it's our technology, then followed by incineration.

I think there's room for all of us at the table on that. I think that's where Europe is definitely ahead of us, looking at all of the various aspects of waste management, of ways to just not put it in a big hole in the ground and use it as a commodity or use it as a valuable resource.

[00:21:26] Liz: Absolutely. I know that's your vision and you want people to view it that way. Do you think the work that you're doing and that BioHiTech is doing, do you think that's effective in changing the way people view waste? Or do you think there's a long road ahead?

[00:21:42] Emily: I think BioHiTech is certainly taking strong steps with the two divisions, if you want to call it that, of what we do with our biodigesters, which are aerobic organic food waste digesters that divert food waste. Those can be placed in restaurants, convention centers, and university cafeterias. That's taking your food waste out.

Then you've got our HEBioT technology, which is taking all the other waste with the residuals that just can't be made into fuel, then go to a landfill. When you look at a company who's truly looking at what that landfill diversion is and is looking at other uses of what traditionally has been considered waste, waste management, we've got a really good headstart on looking at a different way to do that.

Now, that's not to say that there's not a long road ahead. I think for as long as we are a disposable society we're going to have to come up with new technologies. With the recycling market taking the dive the way it is as a country, we're going to have to find technology, we're going to have to find ways to recreate from all these materials that we just continually want to throw away. I think BioHiTech is putting a really strong footprint on it.

[00:23:10] Liz: Definitely. That's great. I know the world has changed in recent months with COVID-19, has that upended anything that you're working on in your facility?

[00:23:20] Emily: Certainly for Entsorga it has. It's increased our waste. The majority of Entsorga's inbound is in residential waste, so with everybody staying at home we had a big spike in the volume of inbound waste. Now, that was good for us. Probably not good for the poor people who were stuck at their houses. When we started a year ago, we brought in our first wastes in March of 2019 and made our first fuel in May of 2019. In March and April, we saw the trickle of the spring cleaning, but May and June was when we really saw it hit. We saw it more like February-March where we were getting just that real spring clean out kind of trash. People were really focused on cleaning out their houses, so we saw a definite uptick in that type of material.

It's been interesting to watch, it's been interesting to see how seasonal waste is. In the summer, my chlorine I have to manage it much more closely because I get the pool covers, the solar covers, and the buckets of chlorine, the chlorine residual and the buckets of chlorine comes in. There's just a little bit something different to manage. In the winter, I have to worry about how cold the material is when it comes in and making sure that the fans are still operating and they haven't gotten frozen over. It's been interesting to see the seasonality of it, but with the whole COVID thing it's definitely been an uptick in the residential MSW.

[00:25:06] Liz: Yes, and you're not alone there. I love hearing just how quickly you got off the ground and how much you've accomplished in such a short amount of time. What's been the biggest challenge working for a tech startup?

[00:25:20] Emily: Oh boy. Probably figuring out how to do it in the US. We had a model based off of the Europeans, and we've realized that that model isn't the exact same model as what we have to have here. It's been a little bit of the ability to be flexible and light on our feet to make the changes that we've had to make. We had to add more magnets because we have far more metals in our waste than what the Europeans did.

We've had to adjust the ventilation system because we have far more moisture. We have a lot more trash juice. That's a gross word, but it works. [inaudible 00:26:03] a lot more of that because we have a lot more organics. As those organics break down, they rot and it's juice, so we call it trash juice at the plant. There's more of that. It's really been how do we take this technology that works and make it work even better.

Those modifications have been made so that we can really perfect the fuel that we make and provide it to the cement industry or whatever industry we can eventually farm it out to sell it to, to make it the best that it can be. Like I said, it's required some fast moves on our part, it's required us to be patient. That's something that I've really had to work on, patience. I wanted to be able to flip the switch and, "Poof", it was going to work 100% and, being that this is the first startup I've ever worked on. I've always been on the consulting side, never on the make-it-happen side. I think my expectations are very high, but I believe that we have a team on-site there that are willing to try and achieve those and meet those expectations. We have an excellent team out in West Virginia.

[00:27:26] Liz: You do, and that's fantastic. I know one of our 40 Under 40 is there.

[00:27:33] Emily: Yes, Mike Schmidt. Mike is the business CFO side of things for us. He's a valuable part of the team, certainly.

[00:27:43] Liz: I like that. We loved hearing his side of things and now more of your scientific view of this entire process. It's very interesting to follow the waste and recycling industry from a technology standpoint because, even though things have been in the works, it feels like it's booming lately. Are you seeing that as well from the standpoint from going from consulting to when you started this process? Do you have faith in the industry and technology going forward?

[00:28:11] Emily: Yes. There's new technologies coming out all the time, you have RePower South in the Carolinas and in Alabama. You've got a facility up in Maine. There's a lot of places that are trying it and finding different ways to be successful, but I really think that when you look at the economics of our HEBioT technology and the way BioHiTech is rolling it out, I think that it becomes very economical for the small, medium, and even large municipalities to really be able to make a difference, and not necessarily impact the homeowner with costs of waste disposal. I definitely think there's plenty of room in the technology world for people to grow into it.

[00:29:00] Liz: What's next for BioHiTech? Any expansion plans?

[00:29:05] Emily: We've got a facility that's in the permitting process in New York. We've got several irons on the fire with municipalities. Another one in West Virginia, another one in New York. We're having a lot of discussions. You asked about what COVID had impacted, and COVID has impacted some of those discussions with municipalities about their interest in going forward with facilities.

I have a goal. I'm 52 years old, I want to retire by 60, 62, something like that. I'd like to have five to eight of these in the pipeline. Not necessarily all built, but at least have the permitting in process. I think that's a realistic number. That's my number, that's not necessarily BioHiTech number. I have a personal passion about these facilities and what I think they can do. That's my driver, is what can I do to help BioHiTech get to that five to eight. BioHiTech may have a bigger number, but that's the one that I shoot for right now.

[00:30:11] Liz: That's great, good for you. Ambitious, but seems achievable, especially with your passion. Emily, that's awesome.

[00:30:18] Emily: Yes, I hope so.

[00:30:19] Liz: What lies ahead for you? Sounds like you're going to be quite busy focusing on those five to eight and getting those into the pipeline.

[00:30:28] Emily: That's one part of it that, that certainly will keep me busy. The digester side of the world too, we've got contracts with Carnival Cruise Lines, we've got contracts with large convention center types and athletic facility types. My work there is looking at the microbiology, and working with regulators to understand the impacts of the effluent, the positive and the beneficial impacts of the effluent that we create from the digester.

I jump on both sides of the company. I think we'll have some new technologies to talk about in the not too distant future that have some great merit to trying to change the way people look at waste, to try and change the way people look at sanitary conditions in light of the whole COVID thing. Where we're going to move in that space as well. It's really a matter of looking at where our fingerprint is going to be on the environment. That's the part that's critical to me, is leaving a really positive fingerprint on the environment when I'm done. 

[00:31:42] Liz: That's fantastic, I love that. You're doing that, and I'm sure you're inspiring a lot of other people. Do you have any young entrepreneurs or environmentalists in your family?

[00:31:53] Emily: I do, as a matter of fact. My daughter just graduated with a degree in architecture. She decided about a year and a half ago that she really doesn't want to be an architect, she wants to get into sustainability, sustainability planning, and the urban design around sustainable planning. I think a little bit of it rubbed off there.

I've done classes in high schools for a number of years, since my kids were in high school, where I've shared my environmental passion with a focus on what we do at BioHiTech. I've worked with middle schools in Berkeley County in West Virginia on environmental footprint on manufacturing. I have a secondary degree in education, but realized really closely after doing my student teaching in college that I really wasn't cut out to be a teacher. I think actually there's a part of me that is. I might not be cut out to be in the classroom as a teacher, but I really enjoy spending time and getting younger people excited about what they can do to change the environment. Not just talk about it, not just read the articles off the internet, but actually do something about it. That's really where I enjoy my work a lot.

[00:33:20] Liz: You can tell, even the way that you phrase things, I don't know if you realize, but it is from a very educational standpoint. The fact that you want to help people learn the right way to view waste. Also, focusing on cleaning the metals and a lot of things that education can help along the way. That's great, good for you. Thanks for all that you're doing, what BioHiTech is doing, we really look forward to watching you grow and expand. Where can listeners learn more about BioHiTech and all the great work you're doing?

[00:33:57] Emily: You can go to our website, which is BioHiTech.com. From there, you'll have links that will get you to both the digester side, as well as the renewable resource side, which is the heavy out technology. There's some really good videos associated with the website. One, in particular, is a day in the life at Entsorga. It's about 45 seconds to a minute video that takes you through the entire process and shows you how it works. I think that's a really good one to watch just to get a sense of what the movement is and how easy it is.

I think people try and make this a complicated high tech thing, and it's really not. It's a recycling center with a composting center with another recycling center attached to it, to put it in really easy terms. We've just added some software, some automation to it with a really good ventilation system. I would encourage you to go to the website, though. Once you get to the website, my email address is on there. I'm happy to talk to people. We've been given tours. With the whole COVID thing that's scaled back a little bit, but I encourage people to come out and see the facility. We're going to be working on doing some short video clips that we'll be posting to give people a little bit more information on it. Those are in the works, you can stay tuned.

[00:35:27] Liz: That's great. Please, share those with Waste360 as well, we'd love to keep our readers and listeners posted. This was awesome, Emily. Thanks for spending so much time with us. Stay well, good luck to your daughter, and all her endeavors.

[00:35:44] Emily: Thank you very much, I've enjoyed being on this. I could talk for days about Entsorga you can just cut me off now. [laughs]

[00:35:54] Liz: [laughs] No, this is great. I think our listeners will get so much from this. I really appreciate your time.

[00:36:01] Emily: All right, thank you for inviting us.

[music]

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