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Trash to cash?

Steve Gravelle, CR Gazette –

If you live in Cedar Rapids, you pay $16.72 a month to have your garbage hauled off. What if someone wanted it badly enough to take it off your hands for nothing?

Some day – soon? – trash may be converted to energy to power the households that created it. That day remains just over the horizon, but it edged a bit closer this week.

“We’ve been moving towards commodifying the waste stream for a long time,” said Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn. “That’s all recycling is. It’s not unreasonable to think that at some point solid waste is going to be a commodity.”

Finding value in trash isn’t new – think World War II scrap drives or even victorian-era rag pickers – and it’s gained momentum over the past 30 years as formal recycling programs took glass, aluminum, and other materials out of the waste stream.

Pluckhahn is negotiating with Florida-based Plasma Power LLC on the use of its leading-edge technology to reduce Marion’s share of trash going to the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency Site 2 at 1954 County Home Rd. on the city’s north end. The landfill’s location on the city’s northeast edge was a motivator for Marion residents who have pursued the plasma project for years.

Marion households generate about 25 tons of waste daily – they pay $12 a month for disposal – and its business another 75 tons, so Plasma Power needs more sources for the 250 tons it says it will need to make its waste-to-energy plant economically viable.

For the waste agency, which receives no tax dollars, shifting trash from the landfill poses a financial challenge: as revenue generated by the landfill’s $38-a-ton tipping fee decreases, so does its operational funding. At full capacity the Marion project would cut into agency revenue by $3.4 million a year.

“Cities, counties and the state would need to fund recycling, composting and education programs in other ways, such as a per capita tax,” agency spokesman Joe Horaney wrote in an email.

It’s a tricky early step on the transition of municipal solid waste from plain old garbage to valued fuel.

“We have this whole infrastructure designed to take this material from households and businesses and put it in a landfill,” said Ferman Milster, associate director of utilities engineering and facilities management at the University of Iowa. “There is an incredibly large infrastructure in place that’s working.”

Horaney noted Cedar Rapids/Linn County itself is moving that direction with the construction of its new Resource Recovery Building at Site 2. When opened next year, the facility will make it easier to sort chemical products and recyclables from the waste stream, leaving a “purer” mix for alternative uses.

Already, the agency diverts about 54,000 tons a year from the landfill, which took in 194,588 tons last year. That’s not including materials from building demolitions going to the “Mount Trashmore” Site 1 near Czech Village.

For all the diversion efforts, landfilled material increased 8.1 percent statewide over the decade to about 2.8 million tons last year, providing plenty of potential fuel.

“Iowa has 45 landfills – I think we have more per capita than any other state,” said Alex Moon, supervisor of the Department of Natural Resource’s solid waste section. “That’s going to be a question, whether (alternatives) can put that tipping fee to be competitive with landfills.”

Near downtown Ames, the nation’s first waste-to-energy plant processes 200 tons of refuse a day. The raw waste is screened to remove metals and shredded to create refused-derived fuel that’s mixed with coal and burned to generate steam to heat nearby buildings

Opened in 1975, the city-owned plant has a long-term agreement with Story County communities to take their waste. The county assesses a $10.50 annual fee on every household for disposal, according to Robert Weidner, the plant’s lead operator

“We have a source we know is going to come here,” said Weidner. “That’s a problem with some of these other plants.”

Weidner said the city is exploring the feasibility of converting its 1970s technology to one in which garbage will be converted through combustion into a gas that would fuel a boiler.

“If we could use the gas, that would help the boiler, even make (the energy) portable so we could sell to other people,” said Weidner. “If we could do this, we could take in more garbage.”

More efficient processes, and more expensive conventional energy, will make waste-to-energy more attractive. Horaney said the waste agency hasn’t met formally with Marion or Plasma Power, “but I’m sure we will be.”

Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, said the agency should be able to strike a balance between lower tipping-free revenue and an extended landfill life.

“If you have sized your facility properly and you offer a competitive product, you’re not going to have a cash-flow (problem),” Miller said.

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