If you walk into a forest, or out into a meadow, you will see a natural system that understands and embodies sustainability. Everything is used efficiently and nothing is wasted. Fed by renewable air, water and sunshine alone, these systems manifest the idea that has become the shorthand for the sustainability movement: waste equals food.
Many pundits have suggested that if we are going to move our economy onto a sustainable path, we would do well to emulate nature’s example. Today’s story is about a company that has done exactly that, and in doing so they may have just have taken the waste-equals-food challenge to a new level.
Fiberight, of Catonsville, Md. is a waste-to-energy company that has incorporated several cutting-edge technologies to extract more value and different kinds of value from a standard municipal waste stream than might have seemed possible just a few years back.
In order to appreciate just what Fiberight has done, we need to delve into the world of trash. For most of us, our knowledge of trash extends to the curb in front of our houses where we place our trashcans or totes and, if service is available, our recycling bins. What happens after that is probably a mystery to most of us, and for that matter, one that we might just as soon not know too much about.
Up until this point, the best you might have hoped for, if you were concerned about sustainability, was to have the recyclables sorted and reused. That is generally done at a separate facility called a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where some combination of automation and manual labor is used to separate and sort the various streams. The other benefit you might see is perhaps to have some energy generated from the waste. There are two primary ways to do this. This first is by collecting “landfill gas” (essentially methane, which can be used as a substitute for natural gas). The gas is generated by several different mechanisms including bacterial decomposition of organics, first aerobic and then, after the oxygen is depleted, anaerobic. Volatilization and chemical reactions also play a part. This process occurs in several phases that could last as long as twenty to fifty years. But even after all that time, things like newspapers and magazines buried in the landfill, would still be mostly intact.
Alternatively, energy could be produced by incinerating the whole mess, producing heat which could be used to produce electricity, generally by means of a steam turbine.
The methane process is fine since it is converted when burned into a less potent greenhouse gas (CO2), while displacing the need for other fossil fuels in the process. The main shortfalls are that the methane gas contains only a small portion of the energy potential contained in the waste stream and that it takes such a long time to extract all that.
Incineration, on the other hand, is controversial, due to concerns that highly toxic dioxin and furans that can be given off as the result of burning plastics, as well as heavy metals. Waste incineration is popular in various places around the world, though there are numerous groups opposing it. The U.S. has 86 such facilities. Critics not only question whether the pollution controls are adequate, but also whether there aren’t better ways to capture the inherent value in the waste stream, not only as energy, but also in terms of material recovery or recycling. Two-thirds of what is burned is biomass, while the rest is essentially fossil fuels, mostly in the form of plastics.
What Fiberight has been able to do is to separate out the recyclables, create biogas from soluble organics in a matter of hours, and then covert all the non-soluble organic material, such as cardboard and packaging material into liquid ethanol using second generation cellulosic ethanol technology, and to do all this in a single flow-through facility.
Here is how it works. Once they receive the municipal waste, Fiberight separates the organic from the inorganic waste. Then they remove the recyclables. Finally, they extract the organic pulp from the liquid. The liquid is used to produce compressed natural gas (CNG), which many garbage trucks are beginning to use as fuel. This means the trucks can fuel up when they come to dump the trash. In the future, the CNG will also be used to power the plant itself. But the real novelty is in the final step where the remaining pulp is converted, using their proprietary process, into cellulosic ethanol. All told, 80 to 85 percent of everything that comes in is put to some use and thus avoids the landfill. The process is quite unique. According to Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul, “We can take a [disposable] diaper, strip off the plastic, and recover the cellulose and the poo that’s in it,” converting the one to ethanol and the other to biogas.
This is already happening in a “pre-commercial reference plant” operating in Lawrenceville, Va., with an annual capacity of one million gallons of ethanol. This process will move to a full-scale plant in Blairstown, Iowa, later this year, which, serving 225,000 people living in the three surrounding communities, can produce 6 million gallons of ethanol plus an additional 4.5 million (diesel equivalent) gallons of CNG.
In essence, Fiberight has, in the words of Stuart-Paul, “engineered a far better value solution when it comes to dealing with waste.”
There are really two keys to this claim. First, by developing a proprietary pulping method they’ve been able to extract the biomass pulp from everything else, which makes recycling from a “dirty MRF” much cleaner and easier. Other recyclers have had some success with this part of it, but they could never find anything to do with the pulp. That is where the second innovation comes. Working closely with the Danish biotech company Novozymes, they developed a solution to convert this biomass pulp into cellulosic ethanol.
While we are on the subject of value, let us take a look at Fiberight’s business model. Unlike most companies that must pay for their raw material, as a trash company, they are paid to collect theirs which they do using trucks that are fueled by a by-product of the operation. In the Iowa plant, the CNG will be used to provide some portion of their electricity as well. But that is only the beginning. Not only do they extract value from the recycling operation, but then at the end, there is the ethanol, for which there will always be a market as a transportation fuel or a chemical feedstock.
This kind of innovation, which combines efficiency with opportunity and ends up with sustainability, is a model that truly emulates nature’s example to the benefit of all.
And if we combine innovations like this with creative ways to keep items out of the waste stream in the first place, we could be well on our way towards a zero-waste society.