Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dirty Energy

They say that Christmas comes but once a year. Walking my Los Angeles neighborhood it seems that Christmas has either come again or has never left. Nearly every block has disposed Christmas trees sitting on the curb, abandoned. The traditionalist in me would like to think that the City is waiting for Candlemass (Feb 2) when decorations for Christmas should come down. I doubt that the pick-up schedule aligns with this ancient religious custom.

Thanks to one of the (many) quirks of Los Angeles Sanitation Department, the trees can only be picked up if they have been chopped up and fit within the Green bins. One of my neighbors is trying to comply in the photo above. The result is that for months the trees sit. Last year the last one disappeared the week after Easter.

Dry and decayed trees are not only a visual blight and potential fire risk – but is symptomatic of American’s addiction to trash. On average each American generates 4.5 pounds of waste per day. That’s 1,642.5 pounds of trash per year…just short of a ton. Per person.

Trash is a huge industry ($52 billion) and is a problem around the world. CNBC recently aired balanced and insightful look at the issue “Trash, Inc. The Secret Life of Garbage.”

80 percent of all products that are produced in the United States are used only once and then discarded, and 95 percent of plastic and 50 percent of all of the aluminum beverage cans that are thrown away never get recycled.

More effective recycling seems to be the “no brainer” solution. Instead of burying something in the ground to decay over hundreds of years we could convert it into something else today. Back at the turn of the century I was engaged by a Waste Management company to write a business plan for a genius that they were in business with. I went to his office to meet him, understand the process in order to calculate the financial projections and write the plan so that it was presentable to investors.

I arrived at a broken down RV sitting on the edge of a dump. The stench was palpable. The stereotypical genius was everything you’d imagine: brilliant, scattered, hair every which way, disheveled, passionate and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. And brilliant. He had developed a technology that took household trash and distilled it down to its molecular basis and sorted it so all materials could be recycled.

Recycling today happens when consumers sort. Broken glass is often not able to be used as the pieces get too small. Nails are hard to recycle because they’re small and difficult to sort or require effort to extract from wood. This technology analyzed each piece of trash no matter how large or small and did something to distinguish what it was based on its particle/molecular basis and reduced the remnant off to a bin which could then be recycled into another item. I never did fully understand the physics, but I loved the concept.

This technology not only excited me because I had a paying client, but also because if adopted on a widespread basis people wouldn’t have to have 3 or 4 trash bins in their homes – multiple trash trucks wouldn’t have to circle neighborhoods helping congestion and saving gas. Most importantly the biggest problem with accumulating trash could be addressed.

We raised some money, got the program going, but to be viable many more millions would be needed to build a properly scaled machine and from what I know it never went further. It may not have emerged as the solution – there are many ideas to be explored. A BMW plant in South Carolina receives 60% of its energy from fuel generated by the dump next door.

What about converting trash to energy on a more widespread basis? Denmark does it as do many other European countries.  China is doing it. 20 years ago there were fears about the toxins that the fumes created. Those issues have been solved: the Federal Government (EPA) and 24 states now classify waste that is burned for energy as a renewable fuel.

At this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama promised $150 billion in government spending in the next ten years for clean energy. It’s the same promise he’s made since he began running for the job in 2007.

Instead of spending $15 billion per year for the next 10 years – let’s use the technology that already exists to convert dirty trash into clean energy. Instead of charging homeowners a flat rate per month for waste, how about charging based on the amount of trash that is picked up each week, by the pound? That would be a fair economic incentive to recycle (where there wouldn’t be a fee). Then let’s convert the trash that is collected to energy. It reduces our dependence on foreign oil, which is the single most effective thing America could do in the interests of National Security.

It’s innovative. It’s cost-effective. It’s entrepreneurial. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for security issues. It’s never going to happen, is it?

1 comment:

  1. Great article Craig! Can I just say that here in Mexico City, just to make you feel bad in LA, Christmas trees have been delivered to a special centre where they are fed into a triturating machine and the resultant material turned into compost. If we can do that here, anyone can do it. Also, let me point out that 90% of domestic refuse is reciclable. The 10% that is not would be delivered once a month to the garbage collectors, just imagine how that would revolutionise garbage systems everywhere! Why can't we manage to do this? Ignorance, laziness, sheer lack of will...