Turning Trash Into Cash

While new fuel sources are being sought out amid the amber waves of grain, a less-glamorous but equally lucrative search is taking place — in decomposing landfills. Landfills are carbon-rich methane factories, and waste-to-energy systems have, for years, been used to capture that carbon. Energy Investors Funds and Enpower Corp. said yesterday that they’ve agreed to buy Landfill Energy Systems, owner and operator of 14 landfill gas-to-energy projects, for an undisclosed sum.

The decomposition of organic matter produces natural gas and facilities used to just simply vent and burn the gas, as stipulated in the EPA’s New Source Performance Standards (NSPS). More recently, this natural gas supply is being cultivated through landfills rigged with efficient gas collection infrastructures. Waste not want not, and as landfills mature they are increasingly producing carbon-rich assets that can be converted into fuel.

According to their web site, 19-year-old Landfill Energy Systems has worked on 22 landfill gas projects that in total kick out 80 MW and 60 million cubic feet of gas a day.

Waste-to-energy programs are growing rapidly. Waste Management Inc. (WMI), one of the biggest waste management companies in the U.S., has been working to expand its 17 waste-to-energy plants it runs through its subsidiary Wheelabrator. In an interview with TreeHugger, WMI CEO David Steiner spoke of landfills as carbon sequestration and condensing systems. Steiner was in New York to announce WMI’s 13-year, four-pronged environmental initiative at the World Business Forum. Topping the list is the company’s commitment to recovering more energy from landfills. As Steiner noted:

Today, Waste Management creates enough energy [from waste] for the equivalent of 1 million homes each year. By 2020 it expects to double that output, producing enough energy for the equivalent of more than 2 million homes.

At the forum, Steiner was very positive, outlining his company’s plans for fueling growth through green services. He conveniently did not mention the degrading labor negotiations that resulted in WMI trash-haulers walking off the job in Los Angeles the following day. Or other labor disruptions like the stoppage of service in Oakland, Calif., this past July.

Like a lot of growing green tech industries, the business of waste removal and processing will require an increased number of green-collar workers. As executives at the top pour millions into waste-to-energy programs, the workers at the bottom are leveraging themselves to get a share in the growing profits. This is exactly the type of horizontal uplift that activist Van Jones works for with organized labor. Increasingly, what used to be a “garbage man” is now a “sanitation engineer” who works to convert all waste into energy.