Saturday, 17 July, 2004

Recycling the Dump

Almost every city has nearby a potential gold mine of resources that nobody has yet figured out how to tap: the city dump. People have been dumping their trash in "sanitary landfills" for hundreds of years, and continue to do so at an increasing rate. It used to be that the dump would take anything: dead leaves, grass clippings, tree trimmings and other yard waste, general household garbage, old appliances and televisions, construction debris, etc. If it could be hauled off, it ended up in the city dump. This has changed over the last few decades so that stuff hazardous to the environment or useful in other ways is diverted to recycling centers, but there still is an astounding amount of trash going into landfills.

I've long been fascinated by the potential of extracting value from the contents of these landfills. Think of strip-mining the landfill site, separating the contents, and then selling it as scrap. Anything organic (yard waste, mostly) would be composted and sold as fertilizer or mixed with dirt to make planting soil. Old appliances could be ground up, metals separated, and sold as scrap. Tires could be. Well, tires were always problematic. The point, though, is that most of a landfill's contents have value--just not enough value to make such an operation profitable. Until recently.

Modern recycling methods can separate and resell most of an incoming waste stream--sometimes at a profit--but they're expensive to build and more complicated to operate than a landfill. Municipal governments with their short-term focus have a very difficult time approving the millions of dollars to construct one of these systems when given the much cheaper alternative of buying an isolated piece of property 50 miles away for the city dump. So we continue to bury or dump into the ocean millions of tons of valuable trash each, mostly because there are no visible short-term consequences, and the long-term economic consequences mean nothing to most people.

The long-term environmental consequences do concern some people, but they find themselves powerless to do anything about it. About the best they can do is stage a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protest when a new landfill is proposed, or begin a neighborhood recycling program that starts with lots of excitement and participation but soon loses steam when people realize that there is no direct economic benefit to be gained from separating the glass, plastic, aluminum, yard waste, newspapers, cardboard, and hazardous materials into separate bins to be picked up on different days or dropped off at different facilities. I know that parts of California have mandated recycling programs under which people have separate bins for different kinds of trash. I also know that many people pay no attention and throw their kitchen trash in the bottles and cans bin. A recycling program has to be as convenient as taking out the trash or it won't be effective.

The thermal depolymerization process developed by Changing World Technologies (yes, I've discussed them before, see June 21, 2004 and May 30, 2003) has the potential of making recycling that convenient. Currently in the development stage, this technology could actually be used to recycle any kind of organic trash, including old tires, plastics, yard waste, paper, and even paint and other toxic materials. Current plans for the company are to build plants that are optimized to recycle focused waste streams (for example, the plant in Carthage, MO will recycle 200 tons of turkey parts each day), but it's reasonable to envision a pre-processing step that would separate an incoming waste stream and divert the non-organics for alternate processing.

Consider, then, this scenario. A company purchases the city dump and contracts with Changing World to build a plant at the site. The company continues to accept incoming waste at a regulated cost. The company then begins to mine the landfill, dumping all of the contents into the hopper to be turned into diesel oil, natural gas, and what-all else. When the dump is empty, the company trucks in clean fill and either turns the former landfill into a big park or sells it to a developer for a new shopping mall or subdivision. Of course, they'd have to keep some land where the plant sits and have some space to store incoming trash for the short term, but much of the former landfill could be used for something else. If you're looking for a win-win situation, I can't think of a better example. Consider:

It's possible that the company could waive all tipping fees (fees for dumping trash) because profits on the recycled byproducts would cover those costs. In fact, I could envision the company actually paying for trash! A remote possibility, true, but possible.

I don't know what it would cost to get the ball rolling on something like this. It should be possible to find a city somewhere that would let a private company operate the landfill and begin a pilot program. Would it be possible for a small guy to put together the resources to make something like this happen? Or do we need to wait for a big company like Waste Management or Allied Waste Industries to make it happen?