Burlco's Recycling Project is Garbage In, Gas Out
At the Burlington County landfill, some entrepreneurs have discovered a way to cut the costs of garbage collection, lessen reliance on foreign oil, reduce global warming, and make money all at the same time. One man's trash, they say, is another man's gas.
Decaying trash emits methane gas, and certain garbage trucks can run on methane. A pilot project at the landfill merely put the two concepts together: a truck that runs on the gas that comes from the very stuff it dumps at the landfill.
Cars and trucks that can run on natural gas -- mostly methane -- have been around for decades, favored because they are much cleaner and quieter and reduce the need for imported oil. But few U.S. gas stations supply it, and the idea has been slow to catch on here.
But that could change, with gas prices jumping to more than $2.20 a gallon.
For several months this past winter, with little fanfare, two Mack trucks pulled up to a pump at the landfill after dumping tons of trash from nearby Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base, and filled up.
For Robert Simkins, the county's solid-waste coordinator, seeing that was an "epiphany."
"That's a recycled product if there ever was one," he said.
The $1 million project was funded mostly by Allentown-based Mack Trucks and the U.S. Department of Energy. The equipment to purify the gas for trucks was developed by Cleveland-based Acrion Technologies and installed at the Rutgers University EcoComplex, a business incubator next to the landfill, which straddles the Florence-Mansfield line.
At most landfills, the methane is wasted -- collected in pipes underneath the trash, then burned off in a flare. If it were used instead as fuel, there would be enough to power 80 percent of the nation's garbage trucks, said Bruce Smackey, the project manager for Mack Trucks.
And the gas would be cheap -- less than $1 for the equivalent of a gallon of diesel, Smackey estimated. Diesel today costs about $1.70 a gallon before tax.
Acrion and Mack are looking for a landfill to host a full-scale methane plant that could fuel hundreds of trucks a day.
The Burlington County landfill is a possibility, company officials said. The county plans to use some of its gas to generate electricity at a small power plant, but there would be more than enough left to fuel the 150 trucks that drive to the landfill daily, Simkins said.
Garbage trucks are among the thirstiest diesel vehicles because the fuel is used to move the truck and to lift and compact the trash.
The trucks average 25,000 miles a year and get less than 3 miles per gallon, according to Inform Inc., a nonprofit research firm in New York.
Prolonged exposure to exhaust from diesel trucks and buses is believed to cause breathing problems, heart attacks and cancer. Garbage trucks are no exception.
"These trucks ride up and down the residential streets," Simkins said. "They're right outside your door."
But trucks that run on methane or natural gas release much less pollution than those using diesel -- for example, 67 to 94 percent less sooty particle pollution, according to Inform.
Moreover, every unit of landfill gas used for trucks is a unit not flared at the landfill, further reducing pollution, said Richard Kolodziej, president of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition. The less methane flared, the less the impact on global warming.
Landfill gas has been used to power vehicles before. The Puente Hills Landfill in suburban Los Angeles uses compressed landfill gas to run a dozen vans and cars.
Acrion's process removes more contaminants, allowing the gas to be liquefied so it takes up less space; that means more fuel fits in the tank, Acrion president Bill Brown said. He said he thought this was the first time landfill gas had been used to run a garbage truck.
The only difference between the two test trucks and the hundreds of other trash trucks that run on liquefied natural gas, most of them in California, was that their fuel came from a landfill, which they had to visit every day anyway.
"That's the beauty of the refuse trucks," Brown said. "They keep coming back to the same point." Before it could be used aboard the trucks, the mixture of gases from the landfill was compressed, dehydrated and purified to remove carbon dioxide and various contaminants.
The methane was then chilled to a liquid by using a tank of liquid nitrogen. A full-scale production unit would use a permanent refrigeration unit instead.
Environmental groups have been wary of using landfill gas to generate electricity, because they want to encourage recycling, not trash disposal.
But it is better to use landfill methane than to waste it, said Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group based in New York. Using the gas to run trash trucks seems somehow appropriate, he said.
"It's got a nice je ne sais quoi to it," Greene said.
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