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June, 2016:

Urban biowaste, a sustainable source of bioenergy?

This article was originally written by Mariel Vilella, Zero Waste Europe Associate Director & Climate, Energy & Air Pollution Campaigner for the EU BIoenergy Blog

Although most bioenergy is produced by burning agricultural and forestry biomass, it is also generated by burning the organic parts of municipal solid waste, biowaste or urban biomass. This includes food waste from restaurants, households, farmers markets, gardens, textiles, clothing, paper and other materials of organic origin. But have you ever tried to fuel a bonfire with a salad? Probably not, so this may not be the most efficient use of urban biowaste.

At the EU level, urban biowaste, far from being managed by one set of straightforward policies, is instead held at the intersection of several competing mandates: the circular economy, climate, bioenergy and air pollution. Policies which have an impact, yet fail to drive the most sustainable use of this resource.

Most waste and circular economy policies aim at increasing recycling and resource efficiency of urban biowaste resources by promoting composting and biogas production, while climate and energy policies incentivize burning biowaste to generate energy under the assumption that the energy produced is ‘renewable’, ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘sustainable’. This presents a significant contradiction at the heart of EU environmental policy, one that gets particularly hot within the current sustainable bioenergy debate.

Far from being ‘sustainable’, energy from urban biowaste is often produced under very inappropriate circumstances, particularly when organic waste is mixed with the rest of residual waste (anything that cannot be recycled or reused) and sent to an incineration plant or so-called waste-to-energy plant. These plants then claim that the burning of this organic fraction is ‘bioenergy’ or ‘renewable energy’. In the UK, for example, incinerator companies can claim that an average of 50% of the energy produced is ‘renewable’ under these assumptions.[1]

Under the Waste Hierarchy, incineration of municipal solid waste is not only one of the worst options for waste treatment, it’s actually a real waste of energy and resources when one considers the low calorific value of organic waste. Incineration is a terribly unfit technology to burn organic waste which then requires a significant amount of high caloric materials to be added, e.g., plastics or other potentially recyclable or ‘redesignable’ materials so that it functions properly. Under these circumstances, efficiency and sustainability do not score highly. But even more troubling, the financial and political support that should be committed to clean, sustainable and reliable sources of energy is being misused in the most inefficient way by supporting the burning of resources which could be composted, recycled, reused or simply never wasted to begin with.

Today in the EU, harmful subsidies from renewable energy policies are one of the major obstacles to fully implementing a Circular Economy, because they continue to finance and green-wash the construction of waste-burning facilities across Europe. What should be done with urban biowaste instead? The Waste Hierarchy as seen below provides a clear detailed guideline which should be at the foundation of any policy looking at Municipal Solid Waste.


First, organic waste can be reduced through various measures, e.g., improved labeling, better portioning, awareness raising and educational campaigns around food waste and home composting. Secondly, priority should be given to the recovery of edible food so that it is targeted at human consumption first, and alternatively used as animal feed. Next, non-edible organic waste should be composted and used as fertiliser for agriculture, soil restoration and carbon sequestration. Additionally, garden trimmings, discarded food and food-soiled paper should be composted in low-tech small-scale process sites whenever possible. In larger areas, composting could be done in a centralised way with more technologically advanced systems.

As an alternative to composting, depending on local circumstances and the levels of nitrogen in the soils, non-edible organic waste should be used to produce biogas through Anaerobic Digestion technology, a truly renewable source of energy as well as soil enhancer. If there was any organic waste within the residual waste stream, a Material Recovery – Biological Treatment (MRBT) could be considered because it allows for the recovery of dry materials for further recycling and stabilizes the organic fraction prior to landfilling, with a composting-like process. In the lower tier, landfill and incineration are the least preferable and last resort options.

Ultimately, energy policies for a low-carbon economy should progressively move away from extracting as much energy as possible from waste and instead increase measures to preserve the embedded energy in products, a far more efficient and sustainable approach to resource use.

Zero Waste Europe network and many other organisations around the world have called on the European Commission to use the Waste Hierarchy to guide the EU’s post-2020 sustainable bioenergy policy and phase out harmful subsidies that support energy from waste incineration. The revision of the Renewable Energy Directive and the development of a Sustainable Policy on Bioenergy is an opportunity for Europe to become a leader in sustainable and renewable energy, but it’s critical to ensure that these sources are clean, efficient and their use evidence-based.

Garbage in, energy out: creating biofuel from plastic waste

An Australian startup has found a way to transform end-of-life plastics into bio-crude fuel. But is this a sustainable solution or just pollution displacement?

A McDonald’s container washed up on the beach.

A McDonald’s container washed up on the beach.

At first glance, the polystyrene container buried amid the beach detritus was unremarkable. Closer inspection however yielded something jarring about this discarded filet-o-fish box. Discovered by locals cleaning up in the wake of a storm last month on a South Australian beach, the polystyrene-based clamshell container bore a stylistically-dated design and logo, yet the packaging itself appeared as good as new.

It wasn’t new – McDonald’s stopped using such containers in 1991, so it had drifted in the Gulf St Vincent and beyond or lain buried within sand dunes for at least two-and-a-half decades.

By the life cycle standards of plastics however, this humble burger container was just beginning its journey; polystyrene foam remains intact for about 500 years before breaking down into chemicals that linger far longer than that.

Historians typically define eras by the type of material civilisations leave behind: the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age. The archeologists of the future may well look back on the modern era as the plastic age, our legacy piling up in landfill, clogging up rivers, floating about the oceans, and choking or poisoning wildlife – and the humans who eat the wildlife – for centuries to come.

If University of Sydney Prof Thomas Maschmeyer has anything to do with it, the historians of tomorrow will have to, at a certain point, refer to a different material to chart human progress. That’s not because he has worked out a way to replace plastic, but rather a way to get rid of it.

Maschmeyer’s renewable energy startup Licella is taking a more refined approach to the idea of waste incineration, pioneering a method to transform end-of-life plastics into a bio-crude petroleum substitute.

Renewable Chemical Technologies Ltd (RCTL), backed by UK energy investor Armstrong Energy, is investing A$10m (£5m) into Licella’s plan to build the world’s first commercial hydrothermal waste upgrading plant. Licella will develop and test a recycling plant in Australia before shipping it to the UK, with the first plant to be integrated into an existing facility, which Licella hopes will be the first of many.

The aim of the partnership is for RCTL to develop projects to convert end-of-life plastics into high-quality oil, suitable for blending into standard hydrocarbon fuels, using Licella’s proprietary catalytic hydrothermal reactor platform that has been developed in partnership with the University of Sydney.

Maschmeyer says the partnership will tackle the issue of what to do with end-of-life plastics – the remnants of mixed plastics with small amounts of paper and cardboard that are left over from more easily recyclable components.

“Dealing with end-of-life plastics is challenging and expensive, as they vary considerably and have traditionally had to be sorted in order to be recycled effectively,” he says.

“This investment will allow for the deployment of our technological solution on a commercial scale, with up to 20,000 tonnes to be transformed from waste to product annually from next year just from the first plant alone,” says Dr Len Humphreys, chair of Licella.

Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are interested in making use of such fuel, and the process can also turn waste products from the pulp and paper industry into bio-crude, a possibility that has attracted Canadian pulp and paper producer Canfor onboard to develop a full-scale commercial operation.

However, experts warn that bio-crudes are not without their own environmental consequences.

Dr Tom Beer, honorary fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and former leader of the transport biofuels stream of the CSIRO energy transformed flagship, says turning plastics into bio-crude does present an environmental trade-off in respect to carbon emissions.

“Of the oil that gets extracted out of the ground, about a third is used to produce plastics, which effectively locks the carbon up into plastic,” he says.

“If you then turn it into bio-crude and burn it, that is no longer the case. It depends what you value most, do you want to get plastic out of landfill, and out of the oceans, then fantastic, but it does mean carbon emissions.”

Prof David Cohen, a specialist in the use of nuclear techniques to track fine particle air pollution at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, says carbon would not be the only thing emitted in the use of bio-crude.

“At the front end, production of a product like this is going to involve an energy component to convert it into fuel,” he says.

“Then at the back end, if you convert organic material into fuel and then burn it – then you are going to end up with a combination of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and byproducts that could include soot, volatile organic carbons and carbon dioxide, which are all not so good for the atmosphere.

“Technologies like these are a step in the right direction, but in my opinion it’s renewable or low emission energies that will deliver the output you want – power – without what is essentially pollution displacement.”

“It’s like squeezing a long balloon. You squeeze the middle and the ends get bigger. You squeeze both ends and the middle gets bigger. You squeeze one end and the rest gets bigger.”

Maschmeyer says that in terms of processing, Licella has managed to dramatically reduce carbon emissions via a groundbreaking technique that involves extracting hydrogen from water, and has a much lower carbon footprint than typical crude oil processing.

“The crude oil refining process takes about 12% of the oil ending up as CO2 before burning the oil, just in the process of taking it out of the ground,” he says.

“What we do is taking something already purified, and all we are doing is re-purifying.”

In terms of the end use of the bio-crude, he says that the economy is not 100% green just yet, and for as long as fossil fuels need to be used – such as in jet fuel – bio-crude is a more environmentally-friendly option given the comparatively lower carbon emissions and the added benefit of removing plastic from the environment.

“It is reusing, not renewable, but whilst [we’re still] using fossil fuels, reuse is certainly more attractive.”

Forget about peak oil … here’s the real reason Saudi Arabia is selling its oilfields

New technologies are poised to displace oil as our dominant fuel source

“The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil,”

Sheikh Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister in the 1970s

This sentiment arguably still chimes with Riyadh’s outlook in 2016 particularly with countries such as China exploring long-term alternative sources of clean energy.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, announced in April by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the first phase of which, the National Transformation Plan, was approved last week by the cabinet in Riyadh, envisages a huge diversification of the Saudi economy away from its dependency on oil production over the coming decades.

In the near term, Saudi Arabia continues to target oil market share, pumping at near record highs, although, as current Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih said on June 2 at a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries “there is no reason to expect that Saudi Arabia is going to go on a flooding campaign”.

Undoubtedly Saudi Arabia’s pumping strategy continues to reflect, at least partly, Riyadh’s desire not to hand market share to its regional rival Iran as the latter seeks to ramp up oil production following the easing of Western sanctions related to Tehran’s nuclear programme.

But it likely also includes a calculation that targeting price over market share is no longer a viable policy.

The higher the price of a barrel of oil, the easier it is to justify the production of energy where the extraction costs are significantly greater than those of Saudi Arabia, especially when low interest rates allow projects to secure cheap financing.

Equally, newly-developed extraction technologies do not disappear.

Saudi Arabia may have hoped to bear down, through increased production, on the ability of the US shale oil industry’s ability to compete but those US producers have, so far, proved tenacious.

Shale oil potentially becomes stranded in the ground if the global oil price is too low to justify its extraction but as the price ticks up, the production comes back on-stream while technological advances may even lower the extractive costs.

But as Riyadh looks out to 2030 it also has to factor into its calculations that major energy-consuming economies, including China, are ploughing money into efforts to develop dependable sources of clean energy.

On the consumer side, Hong Kong itself is already championing the use of electric vehicles but that electricity is still largely sourced from carbon-energy.

The ultimate prize is to create that electricity from a carbon-free energy source.

And one way to do that is by exploring the feasibility of nuclear fusion technology to re-create on planet Earth the conditions that generate the energy that powers the sun and the stars. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Project, after the Latin word iter meaning the way, is a collaboration of 35 nations including China.

The aim, as ITER explains it, is to create “the tokamak… an experimental machine designed to harness the energy of fusion”.

“Inside a tokamak, the energy produced through the fusion of atoms is absorbed as heat in the walls of the vessel. Just like a conventional power plant, a fusion power plant will use this heat to produce steam and then electricity by way of turbines and generators,” ITER says.

Science fiction? Yet in February Chinese scientists in Hefei, the capital of Jiangsu province, managed in their own Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) to heat, as the POST reported, “a hydrogen gas – a hot ionised gas called a plasma – to about 50 million Kelvins (49.999 million degrees Celsius). The interior of our sun is calculated to be around 15 million Kelvins.”

Previous experiments by European and Japanese physicists could only hit that temperature for periods of less than a minute. The EAST team maintained that temperature for 102 seconds which was a breakthrough.

Energy produced from fusion technology is many decades away even if it is shown to be achievable but Riyadh understands it is just another example of how the world is seeking alternatives to carbon energy.

Saudi Arabia may not have been looking EAST when it mapped out its 2030 Vision but the Hefei success, and indeed technological advances in shale oil extraction, surely underscore why Riyadh is targeting oil market share, not price, and help explain its determination to diversify the Saudi economy over the next few decades.

As a major energy consumer, China can surely only benefit from this as Saudi Arabia has apparently realised that Sheikh Yamani had a point.
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Biggest US coal company funded dozens of groups questioning climate change

Analysis of Peabody Energy court documents show company backed trade groups, lobbyists and thinktanks dubbed ‘heart and soul of climate denial’

Peabody Energy, America’s biggest coalmining company, has funded at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on manmade climate change and oppose environment regulations, analysis by the Guardian reveals.

The funding spanned trade associations, corporate lobby groups, and industry front groups as well as conservative thinktanks and was exposed in court filings last month.

The coal company also gave to political organisations, funding twice as many Republican groups as Democratic ones.

Peabody, the world’s biggest private sector publicly traded coal company, was long known as an outlier even among fossil fuel companies for its public rejection of climate science and action. But its funding of climate denial groups was only exposed in disclosures after the coal titan was forced to seek bankruptcy protection in April, under competition from cheap natural gas.

Environmental campaigners said they had not known for certain that the company was funding an array of climate denial groups – and that the breadth of that funding took them by surprise.

The company’s filings reveal funding for a range of organisations which have fought Barack Obama’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and denied the very existence of climate change.

“These groups collectively are the heart and soul of climate denial,” said Kert Davies, founder of the Climate Investigation Center, who has spent 20 years tracking funding for climate denial. “It’s the broadest list I have seen of one company funding so many nodes in the denial machine.”

Among Peabody’s beneficiaries, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change has insisted – wrongly – that carbon emissions are not a threat but “the elixir of life” while the American Legislative Exchange Council is trying to overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules cutting emissions from power plants. Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity campaigns against carbon pricing. The Oklahoma chapter was on the list.

Contrarian scientists such as Richard Lindzen and Willie Soon also feature on the bankruptcy list.

So does the Washington lobbyist and industry strategist Richard Berman, whose firm has launched a welter of front groups attacking the EPA rules.

The filings do not list amounts or dates. But the documents suggest Peabody supported dozens of groups engaged in blocking environmental regulations in addition to a number of contrarian scientists who together have obstructed US and global action on climate change.

The support squares up with Peabody’s public position on climate change. The company went further than the fossil fuel companies and conservative groups that merely promoted doubt about the risks of climate change, asserting that rising carbon emissions were beneficial.

Just last year, Peabody wrote to the White House Council on Environmental Quality describing carbon dioxide as “a benign gas that is essential for all life” and denying the dangers of global warming.

“While the benefits of carbon dioxide are proven, the alleged risks of climate change are contrary to observed data, are based on admitted speculation, and lack adequate scientific basis,” the company wrote in the 24 March 2015 letter.

The company agreed in November to make fuller disclosures about global warming risks under a settlement deal reached with the New York attorney general. Peabody had been under investigation for misleading investors and the public about the potential impact of climate change on its business.

Even so, the full extent of Peabody’s financial support for climate denial is unlikely to be revealed until the completion of bankruptcy proceedings.

“The breadth of the groups with financial ties to Peabody is extraordinary. Thinktanks, litigation groups, climate scientists, political organisations, dozens of organisations blocking action on climate all receiving funding from the coal industry,” said Nick Surgey, director of research for the Center for Media and Democracy.

“We expected to see some denial money, but it looks like Peabody is the treasury for a very substantial part of the climate denial movement.”

Peabody’s filings revealed funding for the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate lobby group which opposes clean energy standards and tried to impose financial penalties on homeowners with solar panels, as well as a constellation of conservative thinktanks and organisations.

These included the State Policy Network and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which worked to defeat climate bills in Congress and are seeking to overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, as well as the Congress for Racial Equality, which was a major civil rights organisation in the 1960s.

The filings also revealed funding for the George C Marshall Institute, the Institute for Energy Research, and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which are seen as industry front groups.

The names of a number of well-known contrarian academics also feature in the Peabody filings, including Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon has been funded almost entirely by the fossil fuel industry, receiving more than $1.2m from oil companies and utilities, but this was the first indication of Peabody funding.

Soon and the Smithsonian did not respond to requests for comment.

Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer, two contrarian scientists who appeared for Peabody at hearings in Minnesota last month on the social cost of carbon, were also included in the bankruptcy filings.

Peabody refused to comment on its funding for climate denial groups, as revealed by the bankruptcy filings.

“While we wouldn’t comment on alliances with particular organizations, Peabody has a track record of advancing responsible energy and environmental policies, and we support organizations that advocate sustainable mining, energy access and clean coal solutions, in line with our company’s leadership in these areas,” Vic Svec, Peabody’s senior vice-president for global investor and corporate relations, wrote in an email.

Over the last decade, fossil fuel companies distanced themselves from open climate denial. Much of the funding for climate denial went underground, with corporations and conservative billionaires routing the funds through secretive networks such as Donors’ Trust.

But the sharp drop in coal prices, under competition from cheap natural gas, and a string of bankruptcies among leading US coal companies has inadvertently revealed the coal industry’s continued support for climate denial – even as oil companies moved away from open rejection of the science.

Earlier this year, bankruptcy filings from the country’s second-biggest coal company, Arch Coal Inc, revealed funding to a group known mainly for its unsuccessful lawsuit against the climate scientist Michael Mann.

The $10,000 donation to the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E) was made in 2014, according to court documents filed in Arch’s chapter 11 bankruptcy protection case.

Last October, court filings from another coal company seeking bankruptcy protection, Alpha Natural Resources, revealed an $18,600 payment to Chris Horner, a fellow at E&E.

Scientists find a way to turn carbon dioxide into stone, in potential greenhouse breakthrough

Deep in the solidified lava beneath Iceland, scientists have managed an unprecedented feat: They’ve taken carbon dioxide released by a power plant and turned it into rock, and at a rate much faster than laboratory tests predicted.

The findings, described in the journal Science, demonstrate a powerful method of carbon storage that could reduce some of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.

“These are really exciting results,” said Roger Aines, a geochemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who was not involved in the study. “Nobody had ever actually done a large-scale experiment like they’ve done, under the conditions that they did it.”

The pilot programme, performed at Reykjavik Energy’s geothermal power plant under a European-US programme called CarbFix, was able to turn more than 95 per cent of carbon dioxide injected into the earth into chalky rock within just two years.

“We were surprised,” said study co-author Martin Stute, a hydrologist at Columbia University in New York. “We didn’t expect this. We thought this would be a project that would go on for decades. Maybe 20 years from now, we’d have an answer to the question. But that it happened so fast, and in such a brief period of time, that just blew us away.”

When fossil fuels like coal or gas are burned, the carbon stored within them is released into the air in the form of carbon dioxide. This greenhouse gas traps heat in the atmosphere, triggering an increase in global temperatures that threatens polar ice reserves and contributes to rising sea levels. It also increases the acidity of the ocean, hastening the decline of corals and other marine life.

Researchers have tried for years to figure out how to get that carbon back into the ground. Carbon dioxide can be pulled out of emissions and injected underground into briny waters or emptied oil and gas reservoirs, but there’s a risk that the gas eventually would seep back into the air or that the injection process itself might crack open a reservoir and allow its contents to escape.

Researchers have been looking to get that carbon back into the ground in solid form — something that nature’s been doing for a while, although on a far longer timescale. For humans trying to quickly undo the damage of greenhouse gas emissions, that’s easier said than done. Sandstone does not react much with carbon dioxide. Some lab tests showed that basaltic rock, laid down by volcanic activity, might be more effective but on a scale of centuries, if not longer.

An opportunity for a field test arose when the president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, met researchers at Columbia and expressed his interest in cutting back the country’s carbon dioxide emissions.

“This is really the start of this, at the highest level, which is sort of unusual for research projects,” Stute said.

Together with Reykjavik Energy, the research team designed an experiment around the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant. In March 2012, they injected 175 tonnes of pure carbon dioxide into an injection well. A few months later, they followed with 73 tonnes of a mix of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. (The team wanted to see whether the process worked even if there were other gases present; if it did, it would save the time and money of having to separate the carbon dioxide out.)

The researchers separate the carbon dioxide from the steam produced by the plant and send it to an injection well. The carbon dioxide gets pumped down a pipe that’s actually inside another pipe filled with water from a nearby lake. Hundreds of metres below the ground, the carbon dioxide is released into the water, where the pressure is so high that it quickly dissolves, instead of bubbling up and out.

That mix of water and dissolved carbon dioxide, which becomes very acidic, gets sent deeper into a layer of basaltic rock, where it starts leaching out minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron. The components in the mixture eventually recombine and begin to mineralize into carbonate rocks.

The basaltic rock is key, the scientists said: Sandstone would not react with carbon dioxide this way. So is the presence of water; if the mix had been pure gas instead of gas dissolved in water, it’s unlikely the basalt would have helped form carbonate rocks — at least, not with such speed.

The scientists also injected chemical tracers into the mix, including a type of carbon dioxide made with the heavier, rarer isotope known as carbon-14. They also injected other trace gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, which is inert and does not react much with its surroundings.

When the researchers checked the water at monitoring wells later in the experiment, they found that the trace gases were still there (a sign that the water had gotten through) but that the proportion of carbon-14 molecules had significantly declined. As the water had continued to flow through the basaltic layers, the carbon dioxide had been left behind in the rock.

While much of this happened underground, the researchers also saw fine crystals of carbonate sticking to the surface of the pump and pipes at the monitoring well.

“They look like salt from a salt shaker … on the surface of this gray or black basaltic rock,” Stute said.

Based on other laboratory results, the scientists had expected the process to take centuries, if not longer. But the field test showed that this process, under the right conditions, happens at remarkable speed.

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