Category Archives: Technology and the Environment

Cities and counties come to grips with the high cost of recycling programs.

blue bin

Local governments have mailed out brochures. They’ve held live web chats. They’ve designed helpful magnets.

But D.C. metropolitan area residents — like recyclers across the country — are still tossing a whole lot of stuff into their recycling bins that shouldn’t be there. And it costs so much to sort that some cities and counties are losing money to recycle.

Now, some local officials are starting to acknowledge that it’s time to be smarter about recycling. That starts with being clearer with consumers about what should and shouldn’t go into the big blue bin.

In the past, “we had been telling people that, if they had any questions, when in doubt, put it into the recycling stream,” said Yon Lambert, the director of transportation and environmental services in Alexandria. “Now, we’re recognizing that making recycling work actually requires some recognition that it’s not as easy as we once communicated it to be.”

Not as easy — and not as lucrative.

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. Almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

One of the main culprits is a fluctuating global market for plastic and aluminum that local authorities can do little to control. But another is the cost of sorting a multitude of materials that often arrive in a single truck, is highly contaminated driving down the value of the recyclable good because there is too much other stuff mashed up with it.

The realization that more isn’t always best has prompted some debate about whether the big blue bins and “single stream” systems employed throughout the country are really all they’re cracked up to be.

One bin for all materials makes it easier for people to recycle, but it can also make the process more costly.

Several years ago, in the interest of encouraging more recycling, the District followed a pattern set by other cities across the United States and switched from dual stream to single stream.

“You get more recycled product than you do with a dual stream,” said Tommy Wells, director of the D.C. Department of the Environment. “But the downside is that you get waste that can’t be recycled, and it’s more than you bargained for.”

Now it appears less certain that the big blue bin is the easiest option or the way to go.

When recycling bins were filling up because residents were tossing so much in them, the city simply doubled their size. Fines for placing recyclables in the trash also prompted private companies to err on the side of recycling.

The District’s Department of Public Works says it has worked to educate residents on what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable for the city’s recycling bins.

The Public Works Web site lists glass, plastic lawn furniture and dozens of other objects, big and small, as items that should go in the recycling bin. The only things the District officially says cannot go in the recycling bin are plastic foam and pizza boxes.

Recycling over the past year has cost the District more than a million dollars, after making a profit in 2011, in large part because the quality of recycled product has gone down because of contamination.

“If the blue bin becomes nothing but a trash bin, then we’re missing the point and missing an opportunity,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who sits on the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.

“If our current recycling system isn’t working as well as it should, then we need to explore what changes we’re comfortable asking residents to make, and what changes in collections we can reasonably expect the agency to take on,” he said.

In some of the District’s neighboring counties, officials are feeling similar pressures.

Fairfax County, which netted an average $16 per ton of recyclables in 2011, and paid an average $38 per ton this year, is now weighing the real benefit of a single-stream system.

The cities of Alexandria and Arlington have also started sending out e-mails and brochures about smarter recycling practices.

And in Prince George’s County, where contamination has also sent prices climbing the county has decided that it will no longer accept plastic bags/film of any color, size or shape in its Recycling Program, starting on July 1.

Glass, too, has come under scrutiny. Every county and city recycling program in the region accepts it. And no sound evokes the arrival of the recycling truck quite like the crunching of shattering glass. Yet, officials now agree that it has little value to recyclers. When it breaks, they say, it just tends to end up in landfills.

As technology changes, cities have to look down the road and continue to evolve their policies to determine if it is still worth recycling glass. Glass is very heavy and really contaminates the other recycling material.

One bright spot on the map, might be Montgomery County, which still maintains a “dual-stream” system, and which, still churns out a profit.

The two-stream system makes for less contamination — better sales and less material diverted to landfills, and really isn’t much harder for residents than dealing with a single bin.

Though there are pitfalls in the economics of recycling, there is still value in diverting recyclables from landfills. Most advocates agree that governments do not institute recycling programs to save money, but instead to save energy and maintain the environment.

As John Tiemstra, professor of economics at Calvin College explains, “In economic terms, it’s very often a losing proposition but the thing is, human work does not have the same environmental consequences that exploiting virgin resources has. From a sustainability point of view, recycling has value.”

People have been preaching the importance of the three R’s (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle) for years now – and with good reason. There is truth in saying that recycling reduces pollution and the need for large CO2 producing-landfills, saves limited natural resources such as water, mineral, oil, and coal, and preserves energy by decreasing production numbers.

If we eliminated recycling programs completely 30 percent of solid waste that we recycle would be completely lost. That means that instead of re-using old materials, we have to produce more virgin products from natural resources, a practice that is neither energy- nor cost-effective. For example, recycling an aluminum can saves 95% of the energy required to otherwise produce it from raw materials.

In addition to the environmental rewards, there are also significant social benefits produced through recycling. Aside from bestowing a moral responsibility onto the public, recycling also promotes job growth. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance,

According to the EPA, every 10,000 tons of solid waste hauled into a landfill creates 1 job. Every 10,000 tons of recycled material, however, can result in 10 recycling jobs or 75 material reuse jobs. If the United States could amp up its recycling rate to 75%, it would create nearly 2.3 million jobs across the nation. Therefore, while recycling may not be the most cost-effective program for cities, it helps provide stable, green jobs for the millions of unemployed persons in the U.S.

Thus, cost is not the only factor in cities’ decisions to institute recycling programs. The question will always stand: for whose best interest do we recycle?

Advertisements

The Fremont Food Waste-to-Energy Plant Shut Down

fremont-community-digester

The Fremont food waste-to-energy plant, located in Fremont, Michigan, touted as the first of its kind in the nation has closed a little more than two years after it opened because it hadn’t paid its electric bill.

The plant, operated by Novi Energy, agreed to sell renewable energy — enough to power 1,200 homes — to Consumers Energy. But on Monday, a Consumers Energy crew was at the vacant plant to shut off the power.

The plant manager claims it is a legal fight over ownership that led to the shutdown in January but nearby businesses say nobody has been seen working at the plant since late last year. Fences were locked and the lawn was choked with weeds.

The $22 million Fremont Community Anaerobic Digester, built with help from a $12.8 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan guarantee, was designed to take in 100,000 tons of waste each year from West Michigan food processors, most notably nearby baby food producer Gerber Products Co., and turn that into energy.  The Fremont project also benefited from a 2008 state law that requires Michigan utility companies to obtain at least 10% of their power from renewable sources in the state by 2015.

Anaerobic digestion has been around for centuries, although only recently evolved to where it can produce energy on a utility-use scale from a variety of food waste.   The plant is not the first anaerobic digester power site in Michigan, but is considered the largest and the only one in the state that can harness energy from waste sources other than manure.

While there is opportunity for more of these plants in the United States, the price of digester electricity is considerably higher than conventional energy. Government incentives would be key.

The City of Fremont is keeping a close eye on what’s happening at the plant, since it helped it out with a $120,000-per-year tax abatement and was relying on helping the state make progress on their sustainability goals.

 

A New Waste Hierarchy

new waste hierarcy

 

In 1989 the EPA issued an Agenda for Action that first included the idea of an Integrated Waste Management Hierarchy, which took on many variations before reaching the common one today.

The EPA’s basic idea was to attempt to suggest–but not mandate–that, even though landfilling was most common in the marketplace because it appeared cheapest, other options to handle discarded materials were preferable. These included source reduction, recycling, and even waste-to-energy.

Most recently, Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), a global zero waste organization has upended traditional concepts about the Integrated Waste Management Hierarchy taking that thought further to fully reflect today’s principles of sustainability.

And now with state and city policies mandating the diversion of recyclable materials from landfill coupled with the technological advances the waste industry is seeing to not only eliminate the waste more efficiently but to capture the data about the composition of that discarded waste, the hierarchy will likely need to be refreshed often.

Remote Monitoring as a Value Add

 

Device Montage

Imagine having a problem with a piece of commercial kitchen equipment and have it fixed before even knowing there was a problem. Though it seems implausible, staying connected to a product wherever it is located is now possible thanks to remote monitoring.

Global suppliers such as General Electric and Emerson Electric Co are selling remote monitoring services to help manufacturers fix or prevent mechanical problems increasing their productivity while cloud computing is storing and analyzing vast amounts of data from those machines to predict trends. These combined efforts cut down the need for costly hands-on service calls and turns every day into a profitable and efficient day.

Monitoring performance, analyzing data and troubleshooting any problems, even before the customer knows the machine is having a problem, is an extraordinary level of service. A service BioHitech America offers with every Eco-Safe Digester.

BioHitech America’s remote monitoring feature offers an enhanced level of insight that can truly improve the performance of the machine. Data can be monitored and made available for analysis through cellular or Wi-Fi networks.

In the past, monitoring a machine required specialized men and women to travel to a location to perform a routine inspection of that machine. Now, automation takes over the task and eliminates a considerable amount of travel time, expenses and fuel.

Service is not the only value-add, big data, streaming from the Eco-Safe Digester to your tablet or computer is priceless. Increased efficiency and productivity, improving customer satisfaction, and measuring carbon footprint performance, increases profitability.

This technological baby-sitter represents an entirely new way to keep businesses running smoothly. Anytime, Anywhere Access.

How Cloud Technology and Data is Transforming a Company and Redefining an Industry

iotNetwork_290X230

By Bill Kratzer, CTO of BioHitech America…

Frank E. Celli is not your typical technology CEO. Frank, a lifelong waste industry veteran once responsible for all aspects of the business including collection, recycling, and landfills saw an opportunity to leverage his knowledge and transform the organic waste industry.

His due diligence led him to the Eco-Safe Digester, a large stainless steel machine that promised to eat large volumes of organic waste in very little time.   Originally, the machine seemed ideal for applications that created large amounts of food waste daily, such as grocery stores and cafeterias. The digester uses oxygen and organic microorganisms to literally digest organic waste.   Because the machine is installed at the point of generation of the waste it eliminates the need to haul the waste away and diverts it from its traditional resting place, the landfill. The only by-product is nutrient-neutral water that can be safely flushed down the sewer drain.

Over the last eight years, the digester has been refined, improved upon and firmly entrenched in a variety of markets across the United States and overseas. Small and large generators of food waste are now using the technology not only to improve their carbon footprint but also to save money. “The digester has afforded our customers with a more efficient, less complicated and financially viable waste disposal solution,” states Frank E. Celli. “As diversion goals are developed and more laws and regulations are passed, the Eco-Safe Digester will become an even more attractive piece to the sustainability puzzle.”

The digester’s story, however, changed in 2013 when a mutual business acquaintance introduced Frank to Bob Joyce.   Bob, at that time, was the president of a Pennsylvania-based company that specialized in data center hardware, operations, and software development.   The two quickly saw an opportunity to integrate their two worlds, one firmly entrenched in food, waste, and industrial equipment and the other involved in servers, storage, networking, and data. Utilizing technology to collect waste data from the source has the potential to reshape the waste process entirely.

The fact that BioHitech America had no existing computing infrastructure was not a problem. Like many new technology start-ups, the company was instantly able to spin-up a virtual data center, using nothing more than a corporate credit card.   Within hours, the company went from having no data center footprint to having nearly 20 virtual machines running in multiple regions in the United States.

The transition was fast and dramatic.   The company quickly transformed itself from selling an alternative waste disposal machine to selling a preventative waste disposal solution. The solution welcomed the addition of Big Data and the Internet of Things providing customers with a tool to do more than dispose of the waste it more importantly teaches them how to prevent it.

Customers can now harness the data from the cloud to track and monitor utilization, report on cost savings, and benchmark diversion goals. A food waste prevention solution that tracks progress and measures impact is good for businesses, communities and the environment.

By the end of 2014, the company had captured billions of pieces of data about the machines and provided its customers with detailed reports to help them prevent food waste before it starts.

Unraveling the mountain of data also highlighted an interesting trend: variations in utilization of the digester often correlated to management problems.   “Data has a unique way of uncovering management problems inside an organization.   If an employee is not using a piece of technology appropriately, there are likely other instances the employee is not doing other things appropriately” says Celli.

The digester once considered a “back of the house” solution is now getting the attention of the front office. BioHitech’s conversations used to be limited to the person in charge of waste.   Now we are talking to the CEO, COO, or CMO.

“Culturally, we needed to think ‘Cloud’ in everything we do, and not just our own product.   As a modern technology company, we had to introduce the value of cloud computing and Software-as-a-Service in everything we do.” says Bill Kratzer, Chief Technology Officer. “Our cloud direction was such a fundamental focus for us. I needed everyone in the company to ‘get it’.   We went all in,” says Celli.

Frank placed a bet, and moved his own company into the modern 21st century.   Now he’s betting that by combining two unlikely industries he can force change within an industry that is in need of change.

Reducing your Emissions with a Low-Carbon Investment

tailpipe

The proper management of food waste is actually a low hanging fruit for investors and society as a whole. It is not just more efficient to track down and manage food waste where it is actually generated; it is also of paramount importance to reduce pollution caused by improper waste management and its subsequent transportation.

But it is also not just the act or cost of transportation or the overall level of pollution associated with food waste disposal that has become a concern, it is the staggering fact that we have little information available and even less understanding of how the impact of food waste affects our society.

A green smart technology solution that helps control and prevent waste can be most effective and prove to be a good investment.

The Eco-Safe Digester offers companies an opportunity to reduce operational costs, become more sustainably resilient, and build brand value with stakeholders.

In the US alone, food eats up 10 per cent of the total energy budget, uses 50% of the available US land and absorbs 80% of the fresh water consumed in the US: yet, about 40% of all the food never gets eaten and goes from the shelves to waste. In terms of value, we can estimate that at about 900 billion US dollars of food going to waste on a yearly basis, a value which is only growing bigger by the day (National Resource Defense Council, 2012).

The 40% of food that never gets to be consumed and goes directly to the dumpster creates even more issues in terms of data monitoring and costs control.

The Eco-Safe Digester solution offers a clear roadmap in terms of proper food waste management so companies can see the impacts to their bottom line and have access to real waste data so they can start to understand how to reduce the amount of food wasted. This should make investors feel more comfortable in making investments in the green technology market.

From an investors’ point of view, tackling food waste represents one of the few opportunities left to re-ignite a new wave of legitimate value creation.

The Power of Data

DATA

The importance of data should never be under-stated as it provides the basis for reporting the information required in all aspects of business operations. In the case of the Eco-Safe Digester, an on-site food waste disposal technology, it is applying its’ Big Data details to help businesses achieve numerous positive outcomes.

The digester connects to the BioHitech Cloud via Wi-Fi, Ethernet or any device with a data plan giving customers access to their waste data anytime, anywhere, to identify inefficiencies within their organizations. The ability to access consistent and reliable information about the day-to-day process of waste disposal and then make adjustments to that process or personnel will result in a gain in efficiency.

The BioHitech dashboard compiles this rich set of machine data for each customer so that they can understand their utilization patterns to help identify outliers, trends, and overall usage that can be applied to best practices going forward.

Other customers are using the data to save money and increase profit margins. The ability to track daily savings based on current waste disposal costs provides immediate savings as well as delivers the accurate ROI on the equipment.

There are then a handful of customers that use this data to frame a story for management to make decisions affecting purchasing and inventory control two additional contributors to waste generation.

And as regulations continue to be passed in the United States, the data is proof of a business’s compliance as well as an indicator of their environmental contributions. Less waste leads to less carbon emissions and a greener more sustainable environment.

Recently, the Eco-Safe Digester Solution has moved from a “back of the house” process to a “front of the house” message in that the data provided about internal sustainability efforts can be a valuable marketing tool.  Some customers are now streaming their accumulated data to their websites to promote their sustainable efforts and attract new customers and potential investors.

A Responsive Solution

As a solutions provider, the digester data is not only used to make our customers smarter and more in-control of their waste practices but is viewed as a valuable service tool. Information is collected by the digester’s BioBrain instantly and the back-end analytical tool is able to provide BioHitech analysts and technicians information about digestion rates, utility usage, hours of operation, and potential maintenance issues to use in assessing and sometimes adjusting the machine’s parameters specific to the customer’s needs.

Remotely controlling any unit from anywhere in the world at any time changes the service support from a reactive to a pro-active approach. Access to this type of data offers future glimpses of what to expect from the technology and effectively creates the environment for minimal interruption resultantly leading to better ROI’s and a more efficient and predictable process.

Data can be a powerful and useful advantage in managing waste more effectively.