Kane County's Quantum Leap: Waste-to-Fuel Technology

Kane County’s Quantum Leap: Waste-to-Fuel Technology

Chairman's Corner

What could be less glamorous than the way we dispose of our society’s trash? Yet, someone has to do it, and as they say, “that garbage has to be dumped somewhere.”

But, the truth is, it doesn’t.

There’s a better way, and Kane County can lead through innovation.

On Friday, Jennifer Jarland, Ken Anderson and members of the Energy and Environment Committee reported in this year’s Kane County Solid Waste Plan that our municipal solid waste stream is 770,998 tons. That’s about 1.542 billion pounds of garbage for 521,561 people — an average of 2,956 pounds per person for 2015.

In 15 years, this solid waste stream is projected to grow by 54 percent to more than 1.2 million tons in 2040.

The good news is that Kane County residents are great recyclers. Our overall recycling rate is 38 percent, which significantly exceeds the state recycling standard of 25 percent. But as good as we are, we need to figure out a “quantum” improvement or we’ll continue to pile up mountains of garbage in landfills.

The solution might lie in “waste-to-fuel” technology.

To be clear, we’re not talking “waste-to-energy,” which involves the combustion or burning of energy and is good in certain places and ways … but rather the manufacture of fuel for existing power plants with all the current pollution controls already in their current places.

Imagine a transfer station that processes our tons of garbage in what is essentially a giant trash compactor in a vacuum. The invention by two Michigan engineers is a sealed system that eliminates any air or water pollution. Once the waste is converted to fuel, it’s transported to a current power plant, where it burns hotter and cleaner than existing Wyoming coal, which contains significantly less sulfur and harmful ingredients than Southern and Central Illinois coal.

The solid-waste-to-fuel result burns so hot that when it’s combined with even Illinois coal, both burn cleaner than our current coal-fired plant standards. I recognize that I serve some constituents who say “burn no coal,” but this technology represents a bridge between our current fuel supply — where roughly 75 percent is coal — and our future fuel supplies of wind, solar and other renewable forms of energy.

In addition, as I take out our family’s garbage and recycling on Monday morning, I look forward to the day when garbage haulers pay a waste-to-fuel processing fee (perhaps to the county rather than the landfill, thus relieving pressure on property tax increases) rather than a dump “tipping fee.”

In order to move forward on this idea, state statutes on garbage disposal will need to be updated to include this type of innovation.

Currently, Illinois law favors landfills and classifies garbage as “bad,” and “something that always will be bad,” rather than demonstrating confidence in the abilities of scientists, inventors and environmentalists to work together to make things better. Currently, state Sen. Linda Holmes is helping us make this adjustment by sponsoring a bill that passed both chambers of the General Assembly in Springfield several years ago but got stuck by a vote.

What do we have to lose by attempting a quantum leap in solid waste disposal?

Just our landfills.