Stories tagged waste

In elementary school, I learned about "The 3 Rs" (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), and my knack for thrift-shopping was handed down to me from my mother at an even younger age. But, until yesterday, I'd never heard of a "free store." Apparently, I've been missing out on a new phenomena of reusing! How embarassing. To save you the blush, here's the scoop:

A free store is like a thrift store or garage sale, but everything is always marked 100% off.

A Thrilling Find: Garage sales, thrift stores, reuse centers, free stores, and even Craig's list are all great ways to get things you need for cheap.  Even better, doing so is great for the environment because it means less waste sent to a landfill.
A Thrilling Find: Garage sales, thrift stores, reuse centers, free stores, and even Craig's list are all great ways to get things you need for cheap. Even better, doing so is great for the environment because it means less waste sent to a landfill.Courtesy colros

Here's a New York Times article about a Brooklyn free store, but I'm guessing you're more interested in something closer to home (assuming the Twin Cities are your home, of course). Lucky for you, the Southeast Como Improvement Organization is collecting usable stuff that students tend to leave on the street during move-in/ move-out and making it available for free at the University of Minnesota's ReUse Center from 10am to 4:30pm through this Saturday, Sept. 11th, 2010 (details here). Additionally, for small fees, the U of M's ReUse Center is open year round to the treasure-troving public Thursdays 8am to 8pm starting tomorrow, Sept. 9th, 2010 (details here). Apparently, there was once a catapult for sale... what's not to love about that??

So, go ahead! See what you can find. My trash might be your treasure, and it's environmentally friendly too.


…of climate control systems...

Ever notice the plumes of smoke rising from many buildings, factories, and power plants on a cold day? That smoke is actually water vapor, which still contains usable energy, muahahahaha! Our buildings use lots of energy. Electricity, for example, powers everything from lights to computers to copy machines to coffee makers. Electricity eventually degrades into heat—you can feel that heat coming off of electric appliances. Current building energy management systems expel this excess heat energy instead of using it for other purposes, such as building the ultimate tilt-a-whirl of doom. Dave Solberg, an energy miser and consulting engineer-ahem-secret advisor, wants to change all that using the concept of exergy. He envisions a future where energy is used as efficiently as possible, and he has been working with Xcel Energy and organizations in the St. Paul area to re-engineer buildings.

We all know that mad scientists with plans for world domination need money and power. Well, current climate control systems are expensive to build and operate, and they're bad for the environment. But retrofitting old buildings and creating the infrastructure to support Solberg's systems has a higher up-front cost than following the status quo. If Solberg can demonstrate the effectiveness and cost savings of his plan below at SMM, your regional science museum will become a model for climate control systems all over the world--I mean it will take over the world! HAHAHAHAHAHA!

At Science Museum of Minnesota, Solberg wants to make two big changes in the way we use energy:

Solberg's Plan - Phase 1
Like all large buildings, SMM takes in outdoor air, cools it to dehumidify it, then reheats the air and sends it throughout the building to control the climate. Unlike most buildings, which use giant air conditioners and boilers, SMM uses hot and cold water piped in from Saint Paul District Energy to do that job. You can learn more about District Energy in an outdoor exhibit to the left of SMM's main entrance--and you can see the building right next to us!

District Energy burnin' the biomass
District Energy burnin' the biomassCourtesy Andrew Ciscel

The first change Solberg proposes is to re-use the waste heat that SMM generates from cooling down fresh outside air. Currently, SMM's ventilation system cools outside air down to about 50 degrees F with cold water from District Energy, dehumidifies it, and then reheats that air back up to a comfortable indoor temperature with hot water from District Energy.

Solberg would have us cool the air with cold District Energy water, then use that same water (now warmer) to reheat the air back up to 65 degrees F on its way to the ventilation ducts. This change would eliminate the need to use hot water from DE to reheat air, and it would reduce use our demand on DE’s cooling system, because we would send water back to their chilled water plant at a lower temperature than we currently do.

Solberg's Plan - Phase 2
District Energy makes electricity by burning waste wood. DE then uses the heat energy still available after making electricity to produce hot and cold water, making District Energy 50% more efficient than coal-fired power plants. But at the end of the day, DE has 95-degree F water left over. Right now this excess heat is released into the atmosphere from cooling towers on top of the building (see the plume rising from the building in the image?), but that 95-degree water could meet most of SMMs heating needs. Solberg wants us to tap into that wastewater as our primary heating source, replacing the 180-degree water we currently get from DE. This would put an oft-wasted energy source to work, and it would allow the 180-degree water now being used by SMM to be used elsewhere within DE’s hot water distribution system.

This plan is so good it must be evil. In the long run, if the kinds of changes being pursued by SMM were replicated widely, they would amount to lower emissions and lower energy bills everywhere, which is ultimately healthier for our environment (not that mad scientists care about that sort of thing). In fact, we found out that if we had implemented this system when the current building was constructed, we could have saved $1.5 million in infrastructure (which we could have really used for that giant laser in the--end of message truncated--


Dear Readers,

Now, please raise a hand or two if I’m getting ahead of you, but I think it’s time we get down to business.

You’ve all heard of “the future,” correct? Flying cars, artificial intelligence, iPhones, and excremental fuel sources? I thought so. Or is there anything here that you are, as of yet, unfamiliar with?

Do your part to solve the energy crisis: A local man prepares to save the future, the only way he knows how.    (photo by Mimi K)
Do your part to solve the energy crisis: A local man prepares to save the future, the only way he knows how. (photo by Mimi K)

Ever since the release of Back to the Future Part II, flying cars have been, more or less, old news, and Tamagotchi has put to rest all fears of A.I. iPones will remain a mystery to all of us for another few hours, at least, but are we all clear on the matter of turning excrement, or “poop,” into sweet diesel fuel?

Oh. I see. We haven’t all been doing our assigned reading, have we?

Well, if the responsible among you would like to put your heads down on your desks for a few minutes, I’ll refresh the rest of the Science Buzz readers.

Chemists around the globe have been hard at work on various processes to convert organic, carbon-based waste products into something very much like crude oil. Examples of organic, carbon-based waste products include, but are not limited to, chicken and turkey guts, old tractor tires, Sega Genesis cartridges (in part), lawn compost, cookie dough, defective jewel cases, ramen noodle wrappers, my fingernail clippings, old magazines, new magazines, tennis shoes (right and left), twine, super glue, baseball hats, worn out VHS copies of “Biodome,” and, naturally, human fecal matter.

The method for turning carbon products back into something like petroleum is relatively new, although certainly not unheard of. By applying the right conditions (heat, pressure, and, uh, other stuff) to the contents of, say, a couple tons of landfill, you can end up with a crude oil like substance, and some left over minerals and metals. The trick is in refining this process so that the energy needed for the transformation is less than the potential energy of the fuel output. As scientists come closer to a workable method, government and industry have been taking a closer look at large-scale applications. This article mentions Britain’s interest in the technology needed to turn their organic waste – of all sorts – into transportation fuel.

As something that produces carbon-based fuels, this process wouldn’t exactly halt the output of global-warming CO2, but it’s not quite so harmful as burning fossil fuels because, as the article puts it, “the carbon produced when the fuel is burnt was absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants or trees used to make it.” That is to say, it wouldn’t create new CO2, because the organic components of the fuel had just been taking in carbon that was already in the atmosphere.

The facilities required for the process are, unfortunately, extremely expensive. Once everything is set up, however, the fuel produced could potentially be very cheap. And the ingredients aren’t generally difficult to produce.


Rock-Tenn paper recycling plant loses steam.

Rock-Tenn biofuel study
Rock-Tenn biofuel study
Rock-Tenn currently uses steam heat generated by the coal fired Xcel High Bridge plant. When that source of steam is shut off this summer, Rock-Tenn will fire up its old boilers and begin burning fuel oil or natural gas. This will increase their energy costs by four to six million dollars annually but could go much higher depending upon the volatile international energy markets.

The Rock-Tenn plant processes half of all paper recycled in Minnesota (about 1000 tons per day). Rock-Tenn (formerly Waldorf Paper) employs about 500 people at an average salary of $60,000 and spends about $75 million on goods and services yearly.

St. Paul Port Authority, to the rescue.

The St. Paul Port Authority, a non-profit municipal corporation, with its mission of job creation and retention, plans to build a new fuel plant for Rock-Tenn. Big bucks are involved. Current estimates are about $140 million. District Energy, a private, non-profit corprtion, and Market Street Energy, its for-profit affiliate will run the Rock-Tenn power plant (they currently run the St. Paul district heating and cooling).

Law makers propose $4 million to study idea.

The proposed Midway biomass power plant picked up some steam May 1st when members of the Minnesota Legislature included $4 million to study the idea in their environment, energy, and natural resources bill. The bill also allows for regular input from four district councils (near University Avenue and Vandalia Street) and by business and labor interests.

Big, important issues involved.

Coming up with an environmentally friendly biomass source that is technically and economically workable is a task that involves many important issues.

Municipal waste disposal.
Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) runs a processing plant in Newport, MN that converts municipal solid waste (MSW) to refuse-derived fuel (RDF). The RRT plant gets municipal solid wastes from Ramsey and Washington counties, which subsidize its operation. Read more about municipal waste disposal here.

Energy from renewable fuel sources.

Ramsey and Washington counties support an RDF fuel source for the Rock-Tenn plant as a way to provide both fuel for Rock-Tenn and a "market" for the counties' municipal solid wastes. Other biomass fuel choices exist—among them, woody wastes, agricultural wastes and crops grown specifically for fuel. The choice of fuel for the Rock-Tenn power plant has implications for the municipal solid waste system, but also for air quality, property taxes, agriculture and farmers, and the future of recycling. tcdailyplanet

Who pays? Who profits?
The St. Paul Port Authority, Ramsey County, Washington County and the City of St. Paul are among the public entities whose decisions factor in the process, including decisions on financing and public subsidies. I recommend reading TCPlanet's, "Follow the money" and "Keeping track of the players".

Environmental impacts.
A proposal would need to be made to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) with an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. After the MPCA evaluates this worksheet, it will decide whether a full-scale (time-consuming and expensive) Environmental Impact Statement is necessary.

"a biomass plant has impacts both 'upstream' and 'downstream' of the plant. Upstream impacts include the impacts of growing, harvesting, processing and transporting the biomass. ... Downstream impacts include noise and health impacts from air and water emissions and ash disposal. Air emissions have the most significant downstream impacts." Green Institute study(pdf)

What do you think?

Refuse-derived fuel, known as RDF, raises health and quality of life issues, issues that hopefully will be resolved with fully informed, scientific reasoning. You can get started by following some of the links above.


Is that a contradiction in terms?

Approximately 330 million tons of garbage filled landfills in the United States last year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication for the waste industry. However, remarkably, the capacity of these landfills has been increasing even though very few new dumps are being built. How is this possible?

It turns out that landfill managers have been using methods that allow them to pack more trash into a landfill then what was previously thought possible. Some landfills pile tons of dirt on top of sections of their dumps and then six months later scrape the dirt aside. Like stomping your foot into the waste bin to make more room, this system works to create 30 to 40 more feet of depth — more space for more trash.

Other methods to increase landfill capacity include blowing water and air into the dumps to quicken decomposition and therefore reducing the size of buried garbage. Or, they are using other methods, such as giant 59-ton compacting machines, to bury trash more tightly.

The good news here is that this efficiency will help to reduce the need for new landfills. The bad news is, again, the United States produces 330 million tons of garbage a year! New York City produces so much garbage that it exports 25,000 tons of trash every day to other states and other cities.

So, while I think this new efficiency is great, I also think that we (you and I) still play a significant role in reducing the amount of trash put into landfills. Reduce, reuse, recycle!