Biogas: a waste-to-energy solution

by Jay Bragdon

 

Our Vermont communities face a series of related ecological and economic challenges. These include: managing our wastes, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, generating employment in sustainable industries and stabilizing our municipal tax rates. Although as a state, we are green leaders, we nevertheless have a lot to learn from countries, such as Finland, which have addressed these issues in ways that are both eco-friendly and profitable.

 

Here’s an example. The Finnish company BioGTS has developed a dry anaerobic digester that converts diverse organic waste streams into bio-fuels and electricity. The waste streams it can process include sewage sludge, household (Act 148) wastes, institutional food waste, manure and other farm wastes. Outputs include bio-diesel, bio-gas and dry organic-grade fertilizer that can be sold to farmers and home gardeners.

 

The wonderful thing about BioGTS technology is that it’s modular. Mills are custom made in Finland and built to scale, depending on the needs of a community. This enables BioGTS to create diverse solutions, from farm-scale units to large metropolitan ones. Their largest order to date is for a Chinese mill that will process 31,000 metric tons of agricultural biomass into bio-gas for the regional gas grid.

 

BioGTS technology enables profitable biogas production – even with smaller amounts of waste. Their dry anaerobic process is odorless, requires no process water and is more efficient than wet anaerobic processes now in use locally. With better economic performance, the cost of buying a mill can be recovered more quickly. For this reason, BioGTS is today one of Finland’s fastest growing companies.

 

Vermont municipalities should be able to afford these mills because they can be acquired via lease/purchase arrangements. In our region, a consortium of towns – perhaps Woodstock, Hartford and others – could purchase a district mill to the benefit of all. Revenues in excess of lease payments could go to stabilizing the local tax base, funding road repair or upgrading other public services. Once a mill is completely paid for, the revenue stream should make a significant impact on town budgets. In short, BioGTS technology could be a multiple win for us.

 

Modules can be delivered via ocean freight and trucked to selected sites, where they can be quickly assembled into local mini-mills. All mills are automated and remotely monitored, which should simplify local operation. A district mill in our region could be managed by public employees or farmed out to a private company with the marketing skills to optimize revenue from the sale of bio-fuels and fertilizer. Such public-private partnerships are common practice in Finland and work well for all parties. For more info, visit biogts.com.

 

In the interest of full disclosure, I have no personal economic interest in BioGTS, nor do members of my family. I discovered the company in the course of writing a book and simply wish to share my knowledge. Should our community develop a strong interest in BioGTS solutions, the company has offered to do an open Skype session on the economics of a mill designed around the volumes of waste we can generate as feedstock.

 

Jay is a semi-retired investment advisor and a board member of the Academy for Systems Change (www.academyforchange.org). 

biogts diagram

BENEFITS OF THE BIOREFINERY

  • Low investment and operating costs
  • Compact reactor structure
  • High process efficiency
  • Wide range of suitable raw materials
  • Scalability
  • Modular structure
  • Quick plug-in installation
  • The process does not use any water
  • Easy to use, continuously operated, fully automated and remotely monitored
  • Minimizing the expensive on-site installation

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a BioGTS mill in Finland. The site is compact and clean.

 

Recycling gets complicated

By Amanda Kuhnert

On a recent trip to Europe, I felt like a cavewoman entering the modern world. As I struggled to learn the recycling codes in my host country, I scratched my head, wondering, “How could we Americans be so far behind when it comes to recycling?”

The U.S. recycles about 31 percent of its waste, compared to 66 percent in Germany and over 50 percent in other parts of Europe. These countries are making significant strides on both ends of the recycling movement: to reduce the amount of waste produced and to recycle existing waste through a complicated sorting program.

Spend five minutes in parts of western Europe and you’ll realize that the five Rs— refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle—are ingrained in the culture.

waste-separation-502952_640

SUBHED: Sorting and recycling

When we checked in to our rental home in northern Italy, a bulky welcome packet was waiting for us. Two pages listed “things to do” in the area. The remaining 15 pages detailed the recycling program. It took a houseful of college-educated adults a full week to begin to understand the system. (I wonder if they might offer a course for locals.)

Every household has five different color-coded bins for different kinds of waste: paper, glass, packaging, compost, and trash. Every day a different bin is collected. If you mistakenly place an item in the wrong-colored bin, or mixed items together (like compost in the trash bin or a plastic bottle in the glass bin), the waste collectors will skip right over you. This is great incentive for getting it right.

We rarely saw a stand-alone garbage can. Everywhere we went, from gas stations to mountain huts, they were accompanied by recycling and compost bins. In Germany they really get specific, providing separate recycling bins for each color of glass.

All of the sorting makes sense; mixed recyclables are harder to sell. Countries that properly sort their recyclables have an easier time finding a buyer for their waste than countries, like the U.S., that throw everything into one bin, a practice known as single-stream recycling.

SUBHED: It’s not enough

But today, even conscientious sorters are having a difficult time selling their waste. For years Europe and the U.S. shipped much of our recyclables to China. The country’s recent ban on foreign trash has made one thing painfully clear: We’re all producing too much garbage.

According to the EPA, Americans export about 22 million tons of material every year (a third of our total recycled material). Plastic bags and wrap are the worst culprits. The EPA reports that Americans use 380 billion plastic bags and wrap annually. We have to do something.

In parts of Europe, plastic bags have been under siege, through the introduction of fees, for over a decade. During our travels we found that cashiers may begrudgingly hand you a biodegradable plastic bag if you show up unprepared. But most of them watched us struggle to hand-carry our items without an ounce of sympathy. There, environmental considerations take precedence over service and convenience.

SUBHED: The real problem

Recycling has never been the stand-alone answer to our environmental problem. Only 9 percent of all plastics produced globally gets recycled. Why? Because recycling is complicated and difficult, due to the wide range of additives and blends used in plastic products.

Now that China has closed its doors to foreign garbage, we’re forced to confront the real issue: overuse of plastic.

What can be done? Creating incentive for companies to decrease waste production is one tactic. Germany’s Green Dot system, which has been around since 1991, is an interesting model. The program has reduced the country’s garbage by about 1 million tons. Manufacturers and retailers pay for a “Green Dot” on products; the more packaging, the higher the fee.

The European Commission plans to propose a tax on plastic bags and packaging, and is working to make all plastic packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. They’re also considering a tax on virgin plastics so that companies are incentivized to use recycled plastics.

The bottom line? Recycling simply isn’t enough. We have to start producing less and reusing what we already have.

Sources: Statista.com, resource-recycling.com, nytimes.com, epa.gov.

DO ONE THING: Say “no” to plastic bags and wrap.

 

 

 

Why Save Seed?

By Cassidy Metcalf

When you think of “extinction,” you probably don’t picture lettuce, corn, or cucumber being at risk. Believe it or not, many crop varieties today are in danger of going the way of the dodo.

Bean_Seeds

If you were a gardener in the early 20th century, you would have been able to flip through a seed catalog and choose from hundreds of varieties of each fruit and vegetable. Now very few of those can be found commercially. In 1903 we had almost 500 types of lettuce; by 1983 there were only 36. In the same eighty year period, available corn varieties dropped from 307 to only 12, and cucumber went from 285 to 16. It’s a similar story for countless other food crops across the world.

What happened was we shifted from being seed savers to seed buyers. Over most of agricultural history seeds were the concern of small scale farmers and home gardeners, who would let some of their plants produce seed in the fall, save that seed over the winter, and plant it the following spring.  Seeds were considered a public resource and traded freely among people.

In the last century, however, we have become increasingly dependent on a small handful of corporations for acquiring seed. These companies focus on fruits and vegetables that will withstand transportation and look good in the grocery store; they are not concerned with preserving crops of the past. Due to the privatization of seeds, fewer old varieties are being grown and as a result our food system has been weakened. Without the genetic diversity there once was in seed, we are relying on a small number of crops to feed a lot of people. And as we all know, less biodiversity means greater potential for collapse.

Here’s how you can help – try seed saving in your own garden! The best way to keep heirloom fruit and vegetables alive is for more people to grow them. First off, you’ll need some open-pollinated seeds as these will produce plants identical to the parent. Do not use hybrids; they are a cross between two parents and the next generation will not produce true. The easiest crops to start with are tomatoes, lettuce, peas, and beans because they are self-pollinating and therefore will not cross within the species.

There are lots of helpful resources out there to get you going. The Seeds Savers Exchange has a great website with instruction for beginners. And did you know we have a local seed company? It’s called Solstice Seeds in Hartland, VT and can provide you with an assortment of open-pollinated seeds, all with intriguing names and histories. One of the perks of saving seed is you only have to buy seeds once!

Saving your own seed will allow you to separate yourself from the industrial agriculture model and take control of your food in a sustainable way. It will also enable your crops to adapt better to your specific garden site. Because you will be selecting seed from your best performing plants, the traits you find most appealing – like vigor, taste, or color – will be magnified. After years of seed saving, your crops will be adapted to your local growing conditions as well as your personal tastes. This is what growers before you have done for centuries. By saving and planting seed, you will be participating in an ancient tradition and doing your part to preserve history.

Is Burning Trees Carbon Neutral?

By, Zachariah Ralph

This past week Sustainable Woodstock, in collaboration with the Sierra Club Upper Valley Group, and Pentangle, hosted a screening of the newly released documentary, BURNED. Are tree the New Coal? The filmmakers and producers joined us for a post screening panel discussion. DISCLAIMER the contents of the film and in this article describe extreme examples of bad practices from the forest products industry, which is not necessarily reflective of forestry practices in VT, and especially for wood heat. In many cases, forestry practices in Vermont are very sustainable and should be an example of how other states should manage their forests.

Filmmakers Alan Dater, Lisa Mertons, and Chris Hardee answer questions during a panel discussion.

Filmmakers Alan Dater, Lisa Mertons, and Chris Hardee answer questions during a panel discussion.

BURNED is a documentary that explores the wood to energy industry in the U.S. by specifically looking into three operations across the U.S. The film works to debunk myths propagated by the forest products industry about wood being carbon neutral. It also explores how policies in the European Union are leading to deforestation in the southern U.S., and global activism working to stop these types of practices.

BURNED was produced by Marlboro Productions which is based in Marlboro, VT. The screening of BURNED in Woodstock was part of the “Barn Brainstorming” tour which has so far taken them to venues in North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and Michigan.

Even before the film screened we ran into opposition from proponents of modern wood heat who were afraid of being put on the defensive despite the film not being about burning wood for heat. The documentary instead focused on industrial deforestation for the production of wood pellets to be shipped abroad to facilities in the European Union, and specifically the United Kingdom, where the wood pellets were burned to create electricity. So while the film did not talk about burning wood for heat, it was a warning about how myths around wood burning being carbon neutral can lead to bad practices of deforestation.

Policies in the U.K. recognize burning wood for electrical generation as being carbon neutral because of an error made in calculating how new tree growth offsets the carbon footprint of burning them. This has led the many formerly coal burning power plants to start burning wood pellets. In order for U.S. wood pellet manufacturers to keep up with the massive demand of these facilities, they are not using sustainable forestry practices. Wood pellets are typically described by manufacturers as being from the debris left over from the harvesting of trees for lumber. The film showed that wood pellet companies are harvesting whole trees and deforesting large areas of land and replanting the area with a single tree species which is destroying the natural ecosystem. In addition to bad forestry practices in the South, in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, residents are dealing with air pollution from an incinerator, which is burning chipped railroad ties covered in chemicals. In Berlin, NH residents struggle with the idea of creating jobs by bringing in wood pellet manufacturer or focusing on a local economy. Meanwhile wood products industry lobbyists continue to push the myth that burning trees is carbon neutral leading to massive subsidies from the federal government and states, which continue to drive this industry and exacerbates the problem.

The discussion after the film was lively. There was a great turn out of people including several foresters and loggers who rightfully pointed out that what they do in VT is different from what is done in the south.  John Dumas from Hartland pointed out that there are many foresters and loggers in VT who are very vigilant about making sure that they are using healthy forestry practices. This sparked a debate amongst the panelists and audience about what is sustainable. Vermont is seeing a decline in its forest coverage for the first time in 100 years according to a 2016 USDA report on Vermont Forests, but this is primarily due to development.

The most important and poignant question of the night, in my opinion, was “what do we do to replace burning wood for electricity?” The answer to this of course is to create more renewable energy resources like wind and solar. The longer we wait to create renewable energy resources to meet all of our electrical needs the more we will see deforestation, pollution and monoculture from wood pellet production.

JUST DO ONE THING. Invest in Renewable Energy!

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