A technology company reaches out to you and tells you its process has all the answers to your community’s waste problems. This new technology can take any type of waste, big or small, and convert it into a high-value fuel while creating no pollution and no residue. Not only do you eliminate the need for a landfill, you also are creating virtual gold out of garbage.
It sounds like a great proposition, but you wonder if it is too good to be true.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you are not alone. And now, thanks to a new brief from the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Maryland, and the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), Arlington, Virginia, a set of guidelines are available should this type of situation arise.
The brief, titled “Effective Responses to Emerging Waste Management Technology Proposals,” was developed to provide municipal leaders with the process and resources necessary to make informed decisions when considering unsolicited proposals, unfamiliar technologies or both. SWANA and NWRA also developed the “Emerging Waste Management Technology Project Development Checklist” as an additional resource.
The brief and checklist are designed to assist decision-makers in their evaluation of opportunities that use emerging waste technologies or that use existing management technology in new applications as part of an environmental services program. The brief and checklist are intended to help elected officials identify and understand the associated risks and challenges of the new waste management options.
SWANA Deputy Executive Director Sara Bixby explains why the two associations saw a need to develop these documents. “What we’ve seen over the last several years is a lot of advancement with technology, which is great,” she says. “It is definitely going to move us toward the waste diversion goals we are working for and support, but we’ve also seen some folks come in and propose some things that perhaps aren’t yet proven, or they bring them to some of the wrong people.”
Bixby explains that sometimes a technology firm will go straight to an elected official or economic development official and bypass solid waste officials. “So what we really wanted to do with this brief is give those people some ideas about how they could respond appropriately.”
She says the goal of the brief is still to encourage the development of emerging technologies, but to do so in a way that honors existing solid waste management plans.
“If an unsolicited proposal walks in to an elected official, they can look at the brief and loop the solid waste people in and follow a process that protects local interests,” Bixby says.
Many projects are being presented, she says, but local communities have been reluctant to get involved. That type of response “may be appropriate, or sometimes it may not do justice to the idea that walks in the door.”
Bixby says SWANA wants to encourage technology to keep moving forward. “Everyone is interested in finding something that handles waste more appropriately and uses it in a better way,” she says. “We are going to keep seeing new ideas, and we just want to make sure that to the best of our abilities we consider those ideas in a way that is also protective of the resources that are available locally.”
David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO, agrees with Bixby. “Even when officials are familiar with a proposed waste-related technology, project development, siting, permitting and implementation remain complex and require them to be diligent in reviewing unexpected or unsolicited proposals,” he says. “What we’ve put together helps make this complex process easier to navigate.”
The brief provides steps elected officials can take to protect their interests and also directs them to case studies and resources. “Starting with an understanding of the technology being proposed is appropriate and will set the parameters around this guidance,” the brief states.
It calls out processing systems receiving heightened attention in the industry, including anaerobic digestion, mixed waste processing, transesterification, gasification and pyrolysis. Some of the outputs from these processes include synthesis gas (syngas), renewable natural gas (RNG), biochar and liquid fuels.
“Regardless of familiarity, these production processes—like other approaches to managing solid waste—are complex and require a large capital investment,” the brief notes.
The brief provides the initial five steps to consider when presented with an unsolicited proposal or with an unfamiliar waste management technology. Here is a quick summary. The brief provides further explanation of each step:
1. Require the company or developer to provide reference projects for the proposed technology that processes municipal solid waste (MSW) at a commercial scale in a similar environment.
2. Direct the company or developer offering the unsolicited proposal to meet with your solid waste agency or contracted waste services provider.3. Ask companies or developers about their interactions with regulatory agencies and their understanding of the approval/permitting requirements for the proposed technology.
4. Perform an online search on the company name, the names of principals and the technology. The search will result in three outcomes: a history of successful projects; little information, which indicates the company is new; or projects with a questionable track record.
5. If the company or developer is promising revenue and new jobs for your municipality, it is well worth the cost to hire an independent consultant to evaluate the proposed technology and the financial pro formas and to review the underlying assumptions related to feedstocks.
6. Experience in other cities have shown that waste processing projects require significant support and resources from various divisions within the municipality.
The brief references examples of municipalities that accepted risk or issued bonds for waste processing projects that have failed and provides links to articles on these projects. The projects the brief cites are the IREP material recovery facility (MRF) in Montgomery, Alabama; a plasma gasification plant in Ottawa, Ontario; a gasification project in Glendale, Arizona; and the One Bin For All program in Houston, which has undergone three years of analysis and evaluations without moving forward as of yet.
Assisting with the evaluation process outlined in the brief is a checklist. It provides a set of questions to consider and recommends sharing it with a municipality’s public works department, any other agency responsible for waste management and any third-party solid waste experts the municipality engages. The checklist is divided into eight categories, with a series of questions for each, summarized here:
- Technology – describe the technology and what it is designed to do.
- Feedstock – describe the type of material and amount needed.
- Preprocessing – describe the modifications needed to the incoming waste material.
- Process – describe the process.
- Outputs – describe the products and byproducts resulting from the process.
- Project – describe the location, land area and impacts on the waste stream and movement of material.
- Financial – describe the capital and operational costs and responsibilities and term assumed for the project.
- Regulatory – describe the permits required for the project.
Anne Germain, director of technology at NWRA, estimates hundreds of companies from all over the world offer emerging technologies for the waste industry. Some technologies have been successfully implemented in Europe, or they may be home-grown technologies that work in the lab. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will work with a municipality’s waste stream.
“You have to really consider your local material and how it differs from a different area before you can start implementing some of these technologies,” Germain says. “We definitely don’t want to be discouraging, we just want to make sure that people get all the information before they pursue it fully.”
One of the primary areas the brief and checklist cover is the vendor’s experience. Germain says, “Sometimes they’ll have things on a pilot scale or a bench scale (a laboratory environment).” Bench scale technology is considered experimental. At a pilot scale, the technology is still in what is considered a controlled environment. Commercial scale technologies likely have experience with heterogeneous waste materials, Germain says. “People that have operated a facility at commercial scale, usually you would have a little more confidence that they would have the ability to pull off the system,” she adds.
Another key aspect with technology is understanding whether preprocessing is required. “Sometimes one of the of biggest expenses is in preprocessing,” Germain notes.
It is important to ask about the preprocessing to understand whether the feedstock must be shredded to a certain size, or if, with biological processes, some materials in the stream have the ability to kill the bacteria.
Understanding what byproducts, if any, remain also is critical. “That needs to really be understood by the municipality before they move forward,” Germain says.
“NWRA and SWANA support the development of technologies consistent with the U.S. EPA Waste Management Hierarchy and similar requirements in other countries intended to minimize the final disposal of solid waste,” she says. “Many of these technologies advance that goal and offer environmental and economic opportunities for communities. However, we warn that the accompanying risk should not be disregarded.” A JOINT EFFORT SWANA represents public and private sector individuals in the solid waste sector, while NWRA largely represents private sector firms. Working together on emerging technologies guidance documents made sense to both associations.
“All of us together share an interest in the future of the solid waste industry and advancing that,” Bixby says. “If there are things like this where we can make a common statement or a shared statement, I think it benefits everyone.”
Germain says NWRA also saw the value in working with SWANA. “Because so many of these are emerging technologies and because a lot of our members are more established in the business, they are very interested in establishing some of these technologies themselves, but often the promises are inflated and the risks are underestimated,” Germain says. “That is one of the reasons we wanted to be involved, and we thought it was important to have an organization like SWANA that actually represents some of the municipalities we are trying to target.”
Bixby says the brief and checklist are “very much intended to help people keep advancing forward.
“It is not a ‘Don’t develop new technology’ message,” she adds. “It is not a ‘Be scared of new technologies or doing things differently’ message. It is intended to be a message of ‘Yes consider these things but, ask the right questions, involve the right people and do your due diligence.”