We are currently rolling out our Model EGS-5000L – a system that can be shipped within standard shipping containers and placed into service at existing waste transfer stations, recycling centers, or really anywhere else – even in a ‘field situation’ (e.g. parking lots) hooked up to generators. From a safety standpoint, most people’s ovens in their kitchen get quite a bit hotter than the EGS-5000L and it comes with a negative pressure system that pulls oxygen out so there’s no combustion.
The EGS-5000L can then decontaminate municipal solid waste (at the community level, before being transported far away) and convert the waste to a fossil fuel replacement. Where recycling does not already exist, sorting equipment is called for on the front-end. Thus, recycling increases.
Our goal is to get EGS-5000L systems in as many transfer stations, recycling centers and other facilities as possible, as quickly as possible. The EGS-5000L is specifically made to meet this goal: suitable for high volume production, transportable in standard shipping containers, and designed to be installed in existing facilities (even warehouse-style buildings).
Yet, this is just what I’m referring to as Phase 1-A. I think it’s important to let people know exactly where this fits into the Master Plan and explain where we are headed.
But, if you believe we need to do everything we can to stop future new zoonotic pathogens from emerging, cut back on greenhouse gases immediately (not years or decades from now), stop disease spread, and cut back on coal usage…as soon as possible…then Phase 1-A is in my opinion the absolute best way to accomplish those goals.
There are two primary criticisms for what we are doing in Phase 1-A. The first is that there’s still an ash disposal problem and the second is that there still are power plant emissions.
Behind this criticism is also a conflation of two completely separate things (whether on purpose or just genuinely a misunderstanding) – the difference between burning garbage in an incineration plant versus replacement of coal with an engineered fuel in a power plant. Incinerators that mass burn garbage are left with ash containing all the things that would not combust, which includes metals and other toxins.
It’s important to remember that ‘waste’ or ‘garbage’ isn’t a material. It’s just a regulatory concept to classify groups of different materials, based on the origin and what containers people are putting them in. For example, if one week you loaded your garage can with wood chips and some leaves and grass, it’s technically “garbage” because you put it in your garbage can. From a scientific standpoint though – it’s still wood, leaves and grass (biomass).
The problem with incinerators is what they’re burning – much of it has no business being combusted (or trying to be combusted). So, rightfully, critics point out that you’ve got a problem with the resulting ash.
However, if you carefully select from “garbage” the materials that can be combusted and use that as raw material to make a fuel that can replace coal and be cleaner, then you have a step in the right direction. That’s our engineered coal-replacement fuel, a step in the right direction.
Some say, that the mere existence of any residual ash – that still needs to be discarded – means you are not ‘zero landfill’. True. However, you are far less landfill, you’re on the way to zero landfill, and that ash is not going to create a breeding ground for animals…the very animals that harbor zoonotic pathogens, that in turn can result in a variety of dangerous human diseases.
Consider this: when waste is incinerated, the residual ash is about 30% of the original mass. That shows how much of the input garbage cannot be combusted. In comparison, a typical fuel specification for our engineered fuel is just 5.5% ash and the majority of that ash is calcium oxide (i.e. lime, which is used in agriculture) and silica (which is found in most beach sand).
That all said, in the current state of things, the majority of the waste in the United States, and the rest of the world too, is going to the landfill anyway. So, it’s a deliberate distraction when an argument is put forth that there’s still ash and it has some undesirable stuff in it that heads to the landfill. Yes, that’s true – but it’s headed to the landfill now anyway. We propose that all waste is thoroughly screened, harmful substances removed, non-combustible materials removed, and the remainder replace (dirtier) coal. It is not perfect, but it is a major step in the right direction.
It would be asinine to say we should not shut down 90-95% of municipal solid waste landfilling today, because there will still be 5-10% left tomorrow. This is really what we’re suggesting Phase 1-A is about. If every pound of post-recycled waste went into our systems and it stopped 90-95% from ultimately ending up at the landfill (plus 100% removing the food source that makes landfills into pathogen breeding grounds), that’s a big step in the right direction. To understand how we tackle the remainder see further below.
It’s worth making an analogy. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams of sugar per day for men. Suppose a man with uncontrolled diabetes is consuming 1,000 grams a day. He has tried every diet experts threw at him for years, but nothing has worked. Time is running out, doctors are warning him. He finally develops his own plan, one he can do right away, one that will cut out 900 grams per day. Imagine a person discouraging him from that plan…or, even more analogous to the waste situation, twisting and mischaracterizing it as a plan to start eating 100 grams of sugar per day, 3x the recommended limit, and saying it’s a dangerous plan.
The second common argument against any coal alternative solid fuel (wood pellets, engineered fuels, etc.) is that it still is combustion. That’s absolutely true. The easy answer is that we do not have enough non-combustion power generation capacity right now to generate the baseload power we need. Hence, coal phase-out plans are spread out over years (often having to be extended) and in many parts of the world, coal plants are still being built. In the meantime, it behooves us to replace as much coal as we can, if there are cleaner and renewable alternatives.
I want to provide some more detailed math, carbon accounting and explanation around why what we’re doing makes perfect sense in the interim.
First, if we’re talking about emissions from a solid fuel that was engineered from waste, otherwise headed to the landfill, then intellectual honesty requires we consider the emissions that were going to happen at the landfill anyway. As shown by Nickolas Themelis, the Director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University, landfill fires are the #1 cause of dioxin emissions in the United States (44.8% in 2012). Combining landfill fires with forest fires and backyard burning accounts for 89% of all dioxin emissions in the United States. Sure, one could say the obvious answer is to reduce landfill fires, as if they’re not trying to do that already. However, landfill fires occur specifically due to spontaneous combustion of the methane emitting from the landfills – landfill gas installations don’t solve this either. 91% of all landfill methane emissions come from landfills that are open – in other words, have not been capped yet for landfill gas installations (https://news.yale.edu/2015/09/21/solid-waste-disposal-more-doubles-epa-estimates). Landfill fires occur every day (thousands of them per year in the U.S.), they are uncontrolled and are, again, the top cause of dioxin emissions in the country.
Second, landfills cause serious exposure to toxins to everyone living near them (or even quite a distance away due to wind patterns or waterways). For example, a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found far greater exposure to toxic hydrogen sulfide for those living near landfills – which is associated with lung cancer and various respiratory diseases.
Third, the greenhouse gas damage from landfills is a far greater concern than many realize. Trash is responsible for 882 million tons of CO2 equivalent (and that is 2010 data – garbage is increasing dramatically) – or about 11% of all methane generated by society. Of this, the United States causes the highest amount of landfill-generated methane. In fact, over 16% of anthropogenic methane in the U.S. comes from landfills. When garbage is dumped at a landfill, about 40-60% of the carbon releases as methane rather than CO2. This is very problematic as methane is 28-36 times more destructive to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide, per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and cited by US EPA).
A typical EGS-5000L is rated at 20 tons per day of municipal solid waste processing capacity. In a 2012 review, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery found an average landfill emissions rate of 0.53 MTCO2e/ton (metric ton of CO2 equivalent per ton of waste). The OECD’s Environmental Policy Committee found that reducing one metric ton of MSW at the source reduced GHG emissions by 1.3 to 2.5 MTCO2e/ton. Using the 0.53 MTCO2e/ton figure, an EGS-5000L processing 20 tons per day would avoid 10.6 MTCO2e per day (20 x 0.53 MTCO2e).
On to coal, US EIA reports 205.3 pounds of CO2 per million BTU for average bituminous coal. It’s actually higher for low rank coals (211.9 for sub-bituminous and 216.3 for lignite). We’ll use the lowest one. For calculation purposes, let’s assume 10,000 BTU/lb heating value for the coal, then it will yield 1.862 MTCO2e per ton of coal (10,000 BTU x 2000 lbs/short ton = 20M BTUs/ton of coal; 205.3 lbs CO2 x 20 = 4,106 lbs; 4,106 / 2,204.623 lbs/MT = 1.862 MTCO2e). An EGS-5000L typically will yield an 85% mass conversion per ton (based on roughly 15% inherent or bound moisture of the input material). So, 20 tons input x 0.85 = 17 tons of coal replacement fuel, then multiplied by 1.862 MTCO2e per ton of avoided coal, and the EGS-5000L is eliminating 31.66 MTCO2e per day of coal GHG emissions.
The non-biogenic portion of waste (i.e. plastics) needs to be accounted for since it’s not renewable and does not contribute to near-term CO2 release at the landfill. Though, discarding plastics causes a host of other issues (such as ending up in oceans). Per EPA, the average plastics content of landfilled waste is 19.2% (using 2017 data). Once non-combustibles are removed, the plastics percentage increases to 23.79% of the remaining post-sorted material. After conversion to fuel, the mass percentage attributable to plastics is 27.99%. A Eunomia report (commissioned for Friends of the Earth) found 159 kg CO2 equivalent from plastics, for a ton of waste incinerated (at typical incinerator efficiency) using an assumed 8.8% plastics content. While increased efficiency means less CO2 per ton, and coal plants are typically more efficient than an incinerator, let’s use these more conservative incinerator numbers anyway. Adjusting the 8.8% up to 27.99% equivalent in the engineered fuel, yields 505.7 kg CO2 equivalent per ton of fuel, from the coal or, adjusted to metric tons, 0.5057 MTCO2e. At 17 tons of fuel per day, the fuel from the EGS-5000L results in 8.597 MTCO2e. This number goes down if more plastics are removed from the waste stream.
As for production of the fuel, in an all-electric model, a typical per ton (of input waste) processing energy requirement is 215.18 kWh. EPA reports 7.07 × 10-4 metric tons CO2/kWh for electricity generation, so 7.07 × 10-4 x 215.18 = 0.152 CO2 per ton of waste processed by an EGS-5000L, or at 20 tons per day, 3.043 MTCO2e. If solar panels are added to the rooftop to offset draw from the grid, then the MTCO2e from processing goes down.
Thus, for every EGS-5000L per day, there will be 10.6 MTCO2e savings from avoided methane at the landfill + 31.66 MTCO2e from coal replacement = 42.26 MTCO2e reduction. The fuel will result in 8.597 MTCO2e from its combustion + generates 3.043 MTCO2e in its production (assuming no solar) = 11.64 MTCO2e generated. 42.26 -11.64 = 30.62 MTCO2e savings.
This example yields a 72.456% reduction in CO2 emissions from the current state of affairs. There’s also avoided CO2 emissions from not having to transport the waste to the landfill, less coal mining, and not having to transport the coal. However, these are not captured here. There will be some additional CO2 footprint from movement of the new engineered fuel to the power plant too, but on a net basis it is almost certain that MSW transport to landfill + coal mining + coal transport is a higher CO2 footprint than transport of fuel to power plant, so this is an additional net reduction not accounted for in this writing.
Some will argue that it is better to recycle plastics than combust it for energy. Yes, in theory. As it stands now though, after nearly 5 decades of investment into recycling infrastructure, 91% of plastics still are not recycled. And lots of it ends up in the ocean, devastating marine life. If we let ocean life be destroyed, such as coral reefs, the damage is permanent and irreversible. This situation is a crisis – many saw the recent study that showed there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans in just 30 years (and often microscopic pieces of that plastic end up in the fish that people eat). Though this is a topic for another writing.
An EGS-5000L running 365 days per year would prevent 11,176.30 MTCO2e from being emitted to the atmosphere (30.62 MTCO2 x 365 days). Per EPA, a typical passenger car emits 4.6 MTCO2e per year.
That means that just one EGS-5000L installed is the same as taking 2,429 cars off the road.
This leads me to the point of making incremental steps forward, so we reduce damage now while working on ways to completely avoid it. From today’s state of affairs, Phase 1-A is a significant step forward.
So that brings me to laying out some more steps in the master plan. Put simply, Phase 1-A is about getting EGS-5000L systems everywhere, decontaminating waste and immediately diverting it from the landfill. If the landfill crisis is a flood, EGS-5000Ls are the sandbags. Not permanent, but quite important considering the alternative.
The next part of Phase 1 is to address the ash. Our goal for garbage is not 5-10% landfill but zero landfill, so we plan to invest in ash re-use for construction materials. As is well-studied, ash suitability for re-use is a function of the input material, fuel-burnout, and potentially later treatment processes. We have already started on this – but need to invest further into it and will be in a position to do so as we roll out EGS-5000Ls. I call this ash re-use Phase 1-B.
The other big challenge in Phase 1 is the residual CO2 from the power plant emissions. 72.456% reduction in CO2 emissions is good but we need to do even better. The fight is about continuing the existence of our planet as we know it. Nothing short of success is acceptable.
Ecogensus will be collaborating with other companies focused on carbon capture. Given the high renewable (biomass) content of Ecogensus fuel, adding carbon capture (and utilization/storage) would actually make the Ecogensus Phase 1 master plan carbon negative – not just stopping the damage but beginning to reverse it (or, at least, offset other industries’ continued pollution).
So that’s Phase 1:
To the purists out there, I’m with you. I cringe at incremental steps when the destination is so vividly clear. Yet, the realities of how innovation and societal improvement work do not let us teleport to the future state. The only thing that makes me cringe more than incremental steps is realizing that after nearly 50 years of concerted effort towards controlling and reducing (ending?) landfills, we’re actually now worse off than we have ever been before…and it is getting even worse every day. Let’s be intellectually honest. It’s the diabetic example I laid out. If the patient cuts out 900 grams of sugar a day right away, then yes, the patient is still 3 times greater than the acceptable limit – but if he keeps his current 1,000 grams per day until that perfect plan to cut out 970 grams is crafted, he’ll die waiting.
Some critics will say the issue is that incremental approaches sometimes require long-term investment and then we have hamstrung ourselves from reaching the destination. The example usually cited relates to incinerators, saying that the expense of investing in and constructing incinerators requires 20 or 30-year waste contracts, which in turn locks up waste streams and prevents potential recycling. While there are specific examples of towns where this has been observed in individual contracts, on a macro level it cannot be ignored that after decades of recycling the majority of waste is still landfilled. Nevertheless, I sympathize with the theory –though I would argue that societal ‘commitment’ to landfills is of even greater concern.
What makes our Phase 1 sensible is that it is an economical equipment-based approach and it replaces coal in existing power plants. So, we are not committing to a decades-long new approach. This is rapidly deployable equipment, not vast new waste facilities. This is fuel replacement in plants that already exist and were invested in, not expensive new power plants.
The world is wounded when it comes to waste. We are at the scene of the accident. Phase 1 stops the bleeding. If we do not, we may die (quite literally). Yet, Phase 1 is just the bandages.
I do look forward to announcing Phase 2 (already in the works). From a technology standpoint, if Phase 1 is the Apple II and Macintosh of the 1980s, Phase 2 is the iPhone. I have a better analogy, but it gives too much away...
Thank you for reading.
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