Blog Post: Sustainability through a Dirty MRF?

Blog Post: Sustainability through a Dirty MRF?

Brian Cummins
on Feb 07, 2012

This is a conversation about a blog post from Dan Moulthrop: Sustainability through a Dirty MRF?

Two of the most popular conversations on our The Civic Commons these days have to do with the notion of sustainability. They're so popular, in fact, one has even attracted the attention of and contributions from my mom, of all people. (I don't really mean anything by that, Mom, I swear.) But what's clear about both of these conversations is that what different people mean by sustainability is really difficult to nail down. 

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on 2017-07-25T02:44:56+00:00
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Dan Moulthrop
on Feb 16, 2012
"It looks like we've got an interview scheduled with you for later this month, Brian. I'm looking..."
Dan Moulthrop
on Feb 09, 2012
"Brian--I'm glad you raise these points. When can we interview you (and Susan Miller, perhaps?) to..."

Brian Cummins

Brian Cummins - 2017-07-25T02:44:56+00:00 - "This is a conversation about a blog post from Dan Moulthrop: Sustainability through a Dirty MRF? ..."

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Brian Cummins
on Feb 07, 2012 - 11:26 pm


Dear Dan,  


Thanks for continuing the conversation on the issue of the CLE MSW-WTE with a dirty and clean MRF that makes RDF and sounds like it may save the world!  Just having fun with the acronyms.


Let me translate that and then I'll get serious.  Maybe not too serious though for a late night blog comment. So the CPP (Cleveland Public Power), the Cleveland (CLE) Division of Waste and Sustainability Office is promoting what they are claiming is a "whole system approach" to waste management and energy production.


They would like to take the municipal solid waste (MSW) and convert the waste-to-energy (WTE), but before they would do that we would need to separate the toxic stuff from what would be gasified in a dirty material recovery facility (MRF), as well as separate the various recyclables collected in a clean MRF.  Then they would shred and cook (through gasification) waste and make what is called refuse derived fuel (RDF), that would be used to generate electricity as well as be sold. Pollution & NIMBY is not the only thing -- The point that Jenita makes regarding the not in my back yard (NIMBY) issue is partially correct in terms of why people are opposing the project.  It is the most obvious to most people that live in the immediate area of the proposed facility.  An area that has a 100+ year legacy of pollution, and they don't want any more, even if the facility operates within the EPA standards.  Geez, can you believe that some folks don't actually trust the EPA to protect them?  By the way the facility’s draft air permit would allow as much as 500 lbs of lead and 260 lbs of mercury to be emitted per year. There are other very serious concerns with the proposed and alleged comprehensive proposal. First, many people just don't think it meets the true path of sustainability - I know that Noel mentioned that everyone seems to have a different definition of the word.   Recycling -- Opponents feel that the City should first and foremost figure out how to fund a city-wide recycling program.  Currently the city offers curbside recycling to only 26% of the City’s households.  The cost of ramping that up to cover the whole city is estimated at $29 million.  The proposed comprehensive system with all the bells and whistles (the RDF facility cost $45 million alone) is somewhere between $180 and $350 million, which would include financing.


On the other hand, the City has said they can save $4-7 million a year by taking recycling city-wide, so the pay back period is like 5-years.  We’re saying let’s figure out how to do that first and wait a bit for the emerging technology to mature.


Nationally the recycling rate averages out to close to 34%.  But in Cleveland, even though within the 26% of the city that has curbside recycling people are recycling at a rate of 15%, the rate for the entire city only tallies up to less than 4%.  And, the target rate of the project being proposed is only 25%, although the City has stated that 62% of the waste stream is recyclable.  Those numbers don’t add up.


So the argument goes, why invest a ton of money in a process that will gasify a bunch of waste, when the City has done little to up the recycling  rate of garbage within the City?


Scaling-up an emerging technology = high risks -- The picture gets worse.  The gasifcation technology being touted, and I know they are making claims that all of the components are in operation somewhere on the planet, has not been set-up to the scale they are proposing.  There are less than 30 gasification facilities that process waste (medical, biomass, MSW), and even less that handle only MSW. Worse yet, most places that are trying out what the industry itself describes as “emerging technologies” are doing it as pilot projects first, at a scale much smaller, say 10 to 100 tons of waste per day as opposed to what is being proposed, 560 tons per day.  Needless to say, the investment, technology, scale-up risks are serious and nothing that the city should be involved in alone.  As a matter of fact, the five MSW to energy facilities the City has recently pointed to as examples are all being done by private sector companies and NONE solely by municipal governments. We like half the proposed project -- There are actually a lot of other reasons why we oppose the project, but first I’d like to say that we support all the components that deal with the recycling and sorting (city-wide recycling, MRFs), but not the WTE and RDF components due to the risks mentioned above as well as high capital investment costs.


Composting -- Another very big problem with the project, that really deals with our differing view of sustainability and the definition of a whole system approach, is the proposed project would actually take 15% of the current waste stream that is made up of organic materials (yard waste, woody biomass and food scraps) and pelletize and gasify them, using them as fuel  to generate electricity and to power the facility.  These are materials that would have a higher use in creating more jobs (through a composting facility) and by up-cycling the materials into mulch, soils, organic fertilizer etc..


Incentives to reduce and recycle! -- Another troublesome set of policies that have been put in place with no mention yet of changing, is that the City initiated a year ago, a flat, one-size-fits-all waste fee.  The $8.5 fee ignores the best practice of using a variable rate fee or what some call a “pay-as-you-throw” fee, meaning when you throw out more than your neighbor you pay more.  Instead, Cleveland’s fee is a blunt tool and provides no incentive to reduce waste or to increase your rate of recycling – now that would be a whole system approach!


More carrots less sticks -- There are likely other reasons we have problems with the proposal but there are also alternatives we are seeking out and wanting to propose…as you can imagine they include things like a potential county-wide collaboration that would include sharing the financing of a project (and risk) not to mentioned increasing the scale which could lower the relative cost, a composting facility or two, looking into other emerging technologies like bio-digestion and as mentioned, getting the public to buy into reducing waste and increasing recycling with a carrot as opposed to a stick.


More public input, better solutions -- Let’s keep talking as there is lots to talk about with this proposal.  In fact, I believe now that the City has opened this up to the public, we can work collectively to come up with a better solution for dealing with waste and generating electricity. Sincerely, Brian Cummins Cleveland City Council, Ward 14NOTE: remaining scheduled meetings re: the project --Wednesday, February 8th at Cudell Recreation Center, 1910 West Blvd, Cleveland, OH 44102 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. 

Thursday, February 9th at Harvard Community Services Center, 18240 Harvard Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44128 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.


Wednesday, February 15th at WSEM (West Side Ecumenical Ministry),  5209 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland OH 44102 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. 

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Dan Moulthrop
on Feb 09, 2012

Brian--I'm glad you raise these points. When can we interview you (and Susan Miller, perhaps?) to balance out the interview we did with the CREG crew? 

Dan Moulthrop
on Feb 16, 2012

It looks like we've got an interview scheduled with you for later this month, Brian. I'm looking forward to it. Thanks for your passion and interest.

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