In recent years, many technologies have been put forth as being alternatives to our reliance on oil and gas for transportation and heating.
Unfortunately, nearly all of these alternatives have significant environmental, social and economic impacts, making them undesirable to society at large and specifically to the communities that would host the production facilities.
Three of the most prominent "alternative fuels" technologies being promoted today are cellulosic ethanol, thermal depolymerization (TDP) and Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) gasification/liquefaction.
Cellulosic ethanol is the technology needed to turn a wide array of organic materials into ethanol. Unlike normal ethanol production, it wouldn’t be used on corn or grains. However, it can be used on corn husks, leaves and stalks (known as "stover"), trees and other crop and agricultural wastes. The same technology can be used for more dangerous types of wastes, such as municipal solid waste (household and commercial trash), sewage sludge, scrap tires, construction and demolition wood wastes and other waste streams known to be highly contaminated with toxic chemicals of various sorts.
Several companies have been seeking to build "trash-to-ethanol" plants throughout the nation, targeting at least a dozen states with over 20 proposals. This is just the beginning, but since the technology is experimental and unproven, investors have avoided funding the industry (they all want to be the "first to finance the second proposal," according to one industry leader). Now that the national Energy Bill became law in August 2005, this industry may take off, since the law includes government-subsidized loans that will enable the first plants to be financed. The nation’s leading proposal is a plan for a facility in Middletown, New York that would take trash as well as sewage sludge (possibly from New York City).
Thermal Depolymerization (TDP)
This technology has been widely promoted as "anything-to-oil" by a company called Changing World Technologies. They have a pilot test facility in Philadelphia where they have processed a variety of contaminated waste streams, including food wastes, sludges, offal, rubber, animal manures, black liquor (paper mill waste), plastics, coal, PCBs, dioxins, and asphalt. They also have a full-scale facility in Carthage, Missouri where they turn turkey guts into "oil."
Through their extensive public relations outreach, they’ve managed to get some politicians to latch onto this as a solution to dependence on foreign oil. However, many questions remain unanswered about where all of the toxic contaminants end up when their machines magically turn "anything" into "oil."
Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) Gas-to-Liquids
This technology is named after two German scientists who developed it as a means to turn coal into oil. This was used to fuel the Nazi war machine. It takes a solid fuel and gasifies, then liquefies it. This same "coal-to-oil" technology was later used in South Africa, when the Apartheid regime had a similar problem importing oil, but had large domestic coal supplies. The world’s only remaining facilities are in South Africa and they are major polluters.
An alliance between a Pennsylvania coal baron, Sasol (the South African state oil company), Bechtel and Shell has formed to bring the first coal-to-oil refinery to the U.S. It would be located in Schuylkill County in eastern Pennsylvania’s mining region, adjacent to a state prison, surrounded by three waste coal burning power plants and overshadowing a poor, white community that has a high enough population in poverty that the state classifies it as an environmental justice community. This facility is promoted as one that will turn waste coal (a fuel dirtier than normal coal, with high mercury content) into "ultra clean fuels." They also plan to produce electricity (from burning some of their gas products) and possibly hydrogen. See the company website at www.ultracleanfuels.com and find out the reality at www.ultradirtyfuels.com.
Fischer-Tropsch can be used for a wide variety of wastes. The Pennsylvania project would test process a wide range of municipal and industrial wastes as well as "biomass" (a wide category of often contaminated waste streams).
It has often been promoted as the means to reduce reliance on foreign oil, by increasing the use of coal and waste coals in the U.S. If the eastern PA project goes through, several others are likely to be built – primarily in the coal regions (target states include
AK, CO, IL, IN, KY, MT, OH, western PA, VA, WV and WY). Each of these would be 10-12 times larger than the one planned for eastern PA. If they succeed at building 6-7 full-scale refineries, they would produce 20% of the diesel used in the U.S. (an amount that would more easily be avoided through conservation and efficiency tactics, such as hybrid trucks and increased use of rail for shipping). Proponents state that if all of the oil imported into the U.S. were replaced with coal-based liquid fuels, coal mining in the U.S. would nearly double.
What’s wrong with these magic machines?
In addition to being supposed "solutions" to our reliance on foreign oil and gas, these technologies are often promoted as alternatives to landfills and incinerators for a variety of waste streams. However, these expensive technologies can't help solve problems that need to be addressed "up-stream."
There's no magic technology that can make toxic metals (or radioactive contaminants) disappear. It's rare that any technology actually makes halogens (chlorine, bromine, fluorine...) into fairly benign chemicals (like salts); most tend to make these chemicals more dangerous (like converting them into dioxins and furans or releasing them as acid gases).
Promoters of these technologies tend to avoid describing the fate of toxic metals, halogens or radioactive compounds that enter their processes, making people think that they can handle contaminated wastes and have the contaminants disappear. This is typical of all who promote magic machines (including incinerators). They pretend that the only elements in waste are carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. If they admit other elements are present, it's usually to describe elements that help them market their solids wastes as soil amendment or fertilizer.
Solid waste byproducts of these processes are likely to contain contaminants from the original feedstock (possibly concentrated levels of them) and may be most appropriately placed in a landfill. However, the high cost of using these technologies demands that these solid wastes be sold as beneficial products rather than paying for their "disposal" in a landfill.
As a solution for municipal solid wastes, any technology that destroys materials necessitates the re-creation of those materials from virgin feedstocks, making the net energy flow highly undesirable. Trash incinerators would be more accurately described as waste-of-energy instead of waste-to-energy facilities.
Like incinerators, these expensive technologies compete with recycling and waste reduction efforts, since they would require long-term contracts with "put-or-pay" clauses which penalize waste reduction and recycling efforts. Incinerator companies typically rely on these types of contracts, requiring local governments to commit a certain volume of waste to the incinerator each year or pay a cash penalty.
These facilities are fairly flexible in the types of fuels/wastes they process, so there are economic incentives to use of the dirtiest possible feedstocks –like trash, tires and sewage sludge – since facilities can get paid to take such wastes, whereas they often have to pay to obtain cleaner fuels – like trees, forestry residues or organically-grown crops. Even these "ideal" fuels have impacts. The impacts on forests can be serious, especially when a constant supply of wood must be supplied from a certain area around the facility. These plants are like hungry mouths needing to be fed on a constant basis for as many decades as they'd operate. No facility is going to pay to obtain organically-grown crops, when they can use herbicide drenched, natural gas-based fertilizer grown, genetically-modified crops which are cheaper to produce. Even facilities that start with such a "clean" feedstock will be tempted over time to accept dirtier waste streams that they can get paid for, like construction and demolition wood waste, which almost always involves significant rates of contamination with toxic treated and painted woods, if not other contaminants like plastics and asbestos.
By posing as "green" solutions to waste problems, these technologies justify continued waste generation.
These technologies don't have the job creation and economic benefits that aggressive source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting programs do. The only real answers on waste lie in the zero waste movement and for energy: conservation, efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage, with electrified transportation.