Waste-to-energy or zero waste?


The recently completed gas-to-energy project at the Front Range Landfill in Erie is raising some questions about which approach is better: waste-to-energy programs, or zero waste.

While Front Range Landfill and the town of Erie have decided to follow the waste-to-energy path by trying to convert the gas from the landfill to electricity, the Boulder-based nonprofit Eco- Cycle favors the zero-waste option by trying to drastically reduce the amount of materials sent to landfills.

Zero waste is an approach of waste management focused on the reduction of landfill matter. It encourages companies to design products and packaging with reuse in mind, and encourages users to view their trash in terms of compost and recycling, not waste destined for the landfills.

Eco-Cycle, which works to build zero-waste communities, has a goal of “zero waste … or darn near.” According to Neshama Abraham, the communications and community campaign manager of Eco-Cycle, this means 90 percent or better of waste diversion from landfills to compost or recycling centers.

“There is no question we have a ways to go, but that is one of the reasons Eco-Cycle exists,” Abraham says. “Zero waste also has very much to do with how we deal with our organic materials — basically what would go in your food compost. That is a really important one, because organic matter in a landfill is a very big greenhouse gas emitter. Any organic matter that ends up in a landfill, like paper or packaging that is not recy cled, food, leaves or branches, when that breaks down, methane goes out into the atmosphere. Methane, in its highest potency, is 25 times more powerful than CO2.”

Waste-to-energy is another option for diverting methane from the atmosphere. In the case of Erie, this means collecting the methane gas from the Front Range Landfill and using it to power an engine, which then creates electricity. The result will be enough electricity to power the equivalent of half the homes in Erie today, according to Fred Diehl, a representative of the town of Erie who has been working closely with the gas-to-energy project.

“From the town’s perspective, we’ve worked hard to position ourselves as a sustainable community,” Diehl says. “When the project partners of Waste Connections came to the town with this, really one of the ultimate green projects, our role was to make sure we could facilitate them on the planning side as quickly and efficiently as possible. We were presented with the opportunity to use methane gas that would otherwise be lost to power the equivalent of half the homes in our community. That is a powerful step toward our sustainability goals.”

Eco-Cycle does not agree that a waste-to-energy project is a good option. In fact, a recent paper published on Eco- Cycle’s website says waste-to-energy projects are wasteful. Eric Lombardi, the executive director of Eco-Cycle, said in an email that waste-to-energy is a waste of money and makes the most expensive, polluting electricity known.

“The basic idea is to use and not burn our resources,” Abraham says. “These  landfill materials are resources that we can recycle and reuse. An example is that they were burning plastic bags, but if you combine them with saw dust, they can be used for wood decking. You can reuse cell phones for scrap metal, you can take a water heater and remake it to something else. Burning all those resources is a waste of the resources.”

On the other hand, Brian Karp, the district manager of Waste Connections, which is in charge of the Front Range Landfill, and Diehl both say the wasteto-energy project in Erie and zero waste are not mutually exclusive.

“This is taking what has already been deposited over the past 30 years and it is creating something good out of it,” Karp says. “We can still continue to look to zero waste and recycling options in the future.”

As for the economic concerns raised by Eco-Cycle, Karp says the project ends up paying for itself. The energy produced from the methane from the Front Range Landfill is put back into the grid and sold to United Power.

Also, he says the well and vacuum system used to collect the gas was already in place because of federal regulations to collect any gas produced by the landfill. The difference now is that instead of collecting the gas to send to the flare system, which destroys the gas, the methane is sent to the engine to produce electricity — a process which Karp describes as “sexy.”

“I can take stuff you put out on your curb and I can turn it into something good,” Karp says. “Now tell me that’s not sexy.”

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