Navigant Research Blog

Giving to the Environment This Holiday Season

— December 5, 2016

LEDsThe moment Halloween was over, or in some cases before, holiday decorations were already on sale in major retail stores. With the holiday season comes added expenses—from gifts to parties to additional travel. Reducing energy consumption allows consumers to save money on their utility bills while also contributing less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By selecting certain types of gifts, it’s easy to help reduce waste and environmental impact during the holiday season.

Lower Energy Consumption

Holiday lights for both the commercial and residential sectors are already an added expense this time of year. Using LED holiday lights can greatly lower utility bills. Even with the additional upfront costs compared with traditional miniature lights, LEDs are a more economical option. While incandescent lights have a lifespan of roughly 2,000 hours, LED holiday lights have a projected lifespan of upwards of 20,000 hours. In addition to their extended lifespan, LEDs use considerably less energy and thus cost less over the same operating hours as traditional lights. Although LEDs consume substantially less energy than incandescents, reducing overall operating hours will decrease energy consumption even more. One simple way to reduce operating hours is to turn off lights when no one is in a particular room or area.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Many gifts for the holidays are made from recycled materials, such as recycled tires, plastic bottles, reclaimed wood, and repurposed clothes or fabrics. These types of gifts reduce environmental impact over gifts made only with new, non-recycled materials.

Reusing items comes in many forms. Purchasing rechargeable batteries eliminates waste for gifts and home electronics that require batteries. Reusing newspaper, paper bags, maps, scarves, or other fabric as wrapping is an environmentally friendly alternative to purchasing wrapping paper, which not only reduces waste, but also cuts overall holiday shopping costs. For the crafty types, holiday decorations can be made by reusing household items, such as jars, cardboard, strings, and paper.

With the increase in wrapping paper, holiday cards, cans, and bottles, it is important to recycle as many items as possible. As Navigant Research discusses in its Smart Waste Collection report, the collection of smart waste is a growing market and is expected to grow from $57.6 million in 2016 to $223.6 million in 2025. While many recycling programs could improve upon efficiency, they will accept the above listed items, making it easy to recycle instead of throwing these items in the trash. For other things such as electronics, there are often special recycling options for these items or many places that will accept them as donations.

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, household waste increases by more than 25%. Reducing, reusing, and recycling can significantly decrease the amount of waste around the holidays and help form habits to continue waste reduction throughout the year.


Discarding Food Is a Wasted Energy Opportunity

— May 5, 2016

Corn biofuelFood waste in the United States has been a growing problem. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of food produced worldwide—roughly 1.3 billion tons—gets lost or wasted each year. Annual food loses and waste totals approximately $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries.

Last year, John Oliver spotlighted the issue on his HBO series, Last Week Tonight. Oliver focused the episode on Americans not discriminating against abnormally shaped fruits and vegetables, not being as picky with expiration dates, and donating more food. While the episode provided one take on a solution to this issue (along with added wit and humor), the Heartland Biogas Project is looking at food waste in a completely different light.

The Heartland Biogas Project

The Heartland Biogas Project, along with Heartland Renewable Energy, LLC, was acquired in September 2013 by EDF Renewable Energy. The project, located in Weld County, Colorado near the small town of LaSalle, will be taking food waste and transforming it into electricity through anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion—meaning digestion without oxygen—is the process by which organic materials, such as discarded food and plants, decompose while solid waste (used for composting) and methane gas are emitted. The methane gas is then sent to an interstate pipeline and used to generate electricity. Without using this methane to generate electricity, the gas would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, adding to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Burning methane rather than letting it escape creates much lower amounts of GHG emissions in the form of CO2. The global warming potential for methane, a potent GHG, is 25 times greater than for CO2.

A Viable Option?

The United States has over 2,100 sites producing biogas split between 247 anaerobic digesters on farms, 1,241 wastewater treatment plants (of which roughly 860 use the biogas they produce), 38 standalone (non-agriculture and non-wastewater) digesters, and 645 landfill gas projects. The American Biogas Council estimates that there are almost 11,000 sites with strong biogas development potential. The United States has a low number of digesters compared to Europe, which currently operates over 10,000, a quantity that allows some communities to be virtually fossil fuel free.

While food waste can be reduced in many ways, existing food waste can be used to create electricity. The American Biogas Council believes that if potential digester sites were fully utilized, the systems could produce enough energy to power 3.5 million homes in the United States and reduce carbon emissions equivalent to removing over 800,000 vehicles from the road.

So why are there not more anaerobic digesters if they create these benefits? In Europe, increased energy prices and government incentives have helped spur this market. However, similar incentives are not available in the United States, and the high cost and level of work needed to maintain the sites reduces interest. Perhaps the Heartland Biogas Project can streamline the process and work to effectively reduce operating costs and challenges in order to increase interest in and development of additional anaerobic digesters in the United States.


Is Recycling Garbage?

— December 28, 2015

Recycling has been a topic of recent media trash talk. Energy consumption associated with the practice, particularly through transport, is high, negating many of its environmental benefits. In addition, the price of many recyclable commodities has fallen dramatically (aluminum fell from $0.80 to $0.37 per pound in recent months), undermining the economics of recycling. However, depending on the material, recycling can still have a major environmental benefit. Recycling aluminum saves 10 tons of CO2 per ton of metal. Glass, on the other hand, only saves 0.34 tons of CO2 per ton of material, and these small savings are quickly offset by emissions from transportation, collection, and distribution. Cities are increasingly seeing that recycling is, in many cases, just not worth the investment.

In Portland, Oregon, for example, recycling recovery rates (the amount of recyclables recovered from municipal waste) fell between 2013 and 2014. Some of this decline is easily explained by reduced circulation of magazines, junk mail, and newspapers. However, the construction of new buildings rose in the city, increasing the amount of metal and wood waste that could have been recycled. The WestRock paper mill, Portland’s wood processing facility, closed in October of 2015 due to financial troubles. The cost of recycling remains high elsewhere as well, especially for curbside recycling. In Augusta, Maine, the cost of recycling is $879 and $113 per ton for curbside collection and collection at Augusta City Center, respectively. On December 17, the Augusta city council voted to end curbside recycling in May 2016.

Recycling is still very popular among consumers. In fact, since its introduction in the 1980s, there are now more than 9,800 curbside recycling programs in the United States. However, recycling is, and always has been, energy intensive and costly. Materials like aluminum are beneficial to recycle, but for plastic and glass, the current systems and technology makes the practice economically and environmentally unfavorable. For recycling to work, the system has to change.

Technology to the Rescue

Recent advances in recycling technology could solve many of these problems. For example, Epson’s new waterless PaperLab allows offices to recycle up to 6,720 sheets of paper a day onsite. This eliminates the need to transport heavy, used paper. In Denver, Colorado, Alpine Waste is setting up a state-of-the-art Styrofoam recycling system. This will allow the city to process a previously hard-to-recycle material and prevent a lengthy trip to far-away processing facilities.

Another improvement involves a new type of easily recycled plastics. Discovered by Eugene Chen and Miao Hong of Colorado State University, the material is known as poly(GBL), and can be reduced to its original monomer state (for remaking into plastics) at 220°C  and 300°C (428°F and 572°F) for linear and cyclic polymers, respectively. The process to recycle poly(GBL) completely breaks down polymers and does not require the same high level of energy or water as previous plastic recycling systems—since the raw material doesn’t reach as high of a temperature, less water is required to cool it. This material promises to be cheaper to produce and recycle than many petroleum- or bacteria-derived plastics currently in production.

The current system of recycling is not cost or energy efficient. However, many recent advances have been made to usher in more efficiency. Arlene Karidis of Waste Dive, a news source dedicated to covering of municipal waste, recently published an article stating that technological advancements in recycling are expected continue in 2016, with increased emphasis being placed on safety, automation, and separation of materials. As 2015 ends, the year ahead promises a renewal in the way we think about recycling.


Gasification Projects Drive Smart Waste Evolution

— June 27, 2014

As the waste industry slowly evolves toward more integrated solutions for municipal solid waste (MSW) management, increasing volumes of trash are now being handled by so-called smart technologies.  Waste-to-fuels (W2F) – a subsegment within the energy recovery market that converts MSW into finished fuels, like ethanol and jet fuel – has become especially active, with advanced gasification technologies reaching important commercial milestones.

Enerkem, a Canadian company that recently gained first-mover status with the opening of a 10 million gallon per year (MGY) waste-to-methanol plant in Edmonton last month, is the first pure-play W2F project in development to reach the commissioning stage.  The company plans to add an advanced ethanol module later this year.  In April, British Airways and U.S.-based Solena Fuels (which are jointly developing GreenSky London, a 19 MGY facility converting landfill waste into jet fuel, bionaptha, and renewable energy) announced the selection of a site to commence commercial development and commissioning by 2017.

Faced with high capital costs, both projects depend on the low cost and widespread availability of waste as a feedstock to drive initial viability and future expansion.


According to World Bank estimates, nearly 1.5 billion tons of MSW is generated globally each year.  This total is expanding rapidly due to urbanization and rising levels of affluence in developing economies across Asia Pacific and Africa.

While 16% of MSW generated globally is never collected in the first place, and 27% is diverted for either material or energy recovery, more than 50% is still dumped in landfills, according to Navigant Research estimates.  Although there is plenty of trash to go around for higher value applications like W2F, market development depends on tightening regulations driving landfill diversion, since landfilling is typically the lowest-cost solution in areas where waste is actively managed.

In Western Europe, and to a lesser extent, North America, where waste diversion is gaining the most traction, momentum appears to be increasingly on the side of emerging companies like Enerkem and Solena Fuels commercializing breakthrough energy recovery conversion technologies.

Smart Waste

As forecast in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Waste, annual revenue in the smart MSW technology market – of which, energy recovery is a key subsegment – is expected to more than double from $2.3 billion in 2014 to $6.4 billion in 2023.  Annual revenue from smart MSW technologies is expected to surpass conventional technologies by 2019.

Annual MSW Management Revenue by Technology Type, World Markets: 2014-2023


(Source: Navigant Research)

While Waste Management in North America remains an active investor in Enerkem and other early-stage companies commercializing smart MSW technologies and solutions, traditional waste haulers face a revenue decline similar to that faced by traditional electric utilities.  As more MSW is targeted as a strategic feedstock, there is less trash for waste haulers to manage, resulting in less and less revenue.

Despite this evolution, companies like Enerkem and Solena Fuels still have a long road ahead.  These companies must compete for municipal contracts – in most cases, with traditional waste haulers – often pitting the high capital cost of an advanced energy conversion facility against landfilling on one hand and relatively inexpensive fossil fuel refineries on the other.

Enerkem’s Edmonton facility is estimated to cost $7.50 per gallon of production capacity to build.  GreenSky London, which incorporates the Fischer-Tropsch gasification process to convert MSW to synthetic gas (syngas), is expected to cost more than $14.00 per gallon of production capacity.  While the initial capital cost of such facilities is expected to decline over time, both platforms will depend on multiple revenue streams to be commercially viable.


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