Incinerating Garbage, the High-Tech Way
Converting Gargabe: St. Lucie began searching for alternatives after the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes dumped tons of extra debris into its landfills, says Ron Roberts. [Photo: Matt Dean]
Hard by Interstate 95 south of Fort Pierce rises one of Florida’s many grass-sided landfills, aptly called Mount Trashmores. There in St. Lucie County, say promoters of a new technology, lies the future of waste disposal in America.
Atlanta-based Geoplasma, an offshoot of a real estate development company, plans to build a plant in St. Lucie that will make electricity from banana peels, dirty diapers, old rugs and other garbage. From Waste Age magazine to Popular Science, it’s one of the most talked about trash-handling projects on the drawing board. Across the nation, consultants and cities are waiting to see if it works out in St. Lucie and at another proposed plant in Tallahassee that is to be built by Green Power Systems of Jacksonville. The Air Force also plans a small plasma plant at Hurlburt Field in Okaloosa County.
Hot Shot: GeoPlasma aims to vaporize 1,500 tons of waste a day with its hotter-than-the-sun plasma torch.
Geoplasma says it will use a plasma torch with temperatures hotter than the sun to vaporize 1,500 tons of trash each day. Environmental benefits, in the company’s scenario, cascade like dominoes: The resulting gas will be used to generate electricity that will power the plant and be sold to an electric utility.
The unvaporized slag that’s left over will be sold as building aggregate. What’s more, the company will mine the landfill for fuel, reducing the mound to nothing in 18 years. It’s sustainable, alleviates the need to hack up the hinterlands for roadbuilding material and, as a bonus, rids Florida of one of its mound-builder testaments to our consumer society. Emissions, says the nascent industry, are only slightly higher than those from burning natural gas, the cleanest fossil-fuel generating option.
St. Lucie’s solid-waste officials began looking for alternatives after the alarming growth of its landfill following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, says the county’s solid waste assistant director, Ron Roberts. He says plasma addressed the county’s top concern — environmental friendliness. And he vividly recalls how he and an engineer drove a load of St. Lucie garbage to a Georgia Tech test facility. He and the engineer, Roberts says, “just stared at each other. This stuff is just gone, and there’s no flames. It’s just vaporized.”
Dubiety is understandable. Other cities and counties in the U.S. have passed on plasma waste disposal because it hasn’t been proven on a large scale as economically or technologically feasible. Some environmental groups oppose plasma, calling it incineration by another name. And two years after St. Lucie and Geoplasma announced a deal with talk of a two-year timeframe to get the plant up and running, not so much as a discarded cheese puff has been scorched into molecules.
Mining that landfill will be even longer in coming. It will require building a second plant, with terms to be negotiated only after the first plant to handle the incoming waste is functioning. Higher costs for plasma have been a deterrent to some local governments looking at plasma. St. Lucie’s tipping fee — the price per ton haulers pay to dump garbage at the landfill — is $32. Geoplasma President Hilburn O. Hillestad says plasma won’t drive it upward. Fees won’t rise more than 3% per year, and if that only due to inflationary factors, he says. “We don’t anticipate a big escalation in tipping fees.”
In America, using some form of heat to handle garbage rather than dumping it in landfills is a shift that follows Europe’s pattern; garbage is gasified or burned there for power, though plasma hasn’t established itself there either, says Gary Hater, Waste Management’s senior director for bioreactors, biosites and new technology. But in the American South, cheap landfill space makes those options less attractive. At its landfills, Waste Management is creating bioreactors — proven processes that allow landfill operators to accelerate decomposition to harvest gases faster for use as alternative energy. “I think we’re just going to have to wait and see,” Hater says. If plasma works, “it will revolutionize the whole industry.” Hot shot: GeoPlasma aims to vaporize 1,500 tons of waste a day with its hotter-than-thesun plasma torch. Matt Dean bottom