Cautionary Support for Hefty EnergyBags

Omaha is in a unique position. We are currently the only city participating in the Hefty EnergyBag Program. Several business partners have come together to deploy the effort, which collects plastic materials that aren’t currently accepted as part of our normal mixed recycling stream. These “soft” plastics are often in the form of food packaging – bread bags, wrappers, etc.

On several occasions the firm has had friends and clients ask us whether the program is something they should use. So, like any good boss does, I delegated the research to our intern, David Rice. We asked him to answer the question, should we be recommending to our clients that they participate.

David went on an impressive journey of researching the program. He talked to nearly every business involved. He spoke with experts in the field of waste-to-energy. He sifted through several academic papers. And perhaps most importantly, he fielded question after question from our team. We poked holes in everything he did. We pushed back. We really wrestled with his findings. In short, he really dug in, and we took this seriously.

Before I go any further, I need to declare that my family implemented the program at home, and it’s been amazing just how many materials (see image below) we’ve been able to divert from the landfill with a new destination of a cement kiln near Kansas City, MO. Our family of four now sends 1 – 2 small bags of trash to the landfill each week. Most of our outgoing materials end up composted, recycled or in an EnergyBag. It’s been an eye-opening experience, but I dove in without doing much homework on the environmental implications, which is likely the same course of action nearly every other participant took. Read a few materials, talk to a neighbor that’s participating, order the bags, and – voila – you’re off and running. But the environmental story is a little murky.

I audited the contents of my family’s EnergyBag for one week. Total of 82 pieces, most of which were food packaging.

Most environmental issues aren’t clear-cut. There’s not an obvious answer. What I like about our team’s approach is that we’re pretty practical about many of these vexing issues. We certainly have a long view toward where we want our world to transition, but we’re also pragmatic about what can get done in the short term. The EnergyBag program is a perfect microcosm of how these issues aren’t straightforward and require some serious deliberation about whether short-term consequences are worth long-term benefits.

So let’s get to it. We’re officially releasing a white paper that summarizes how the EnergyBags program works, who is involved, its strengths and weaknesses, and our cautionary support for the program. In the paper, we summarize several concerns with the current program. Here are a few of the larger issues:

1.  At present, EnergyBag materials are destined to be burned as fuel at a cement kiln near Kansas City, MO, which will create harmful emissions (primarily greenhouse gasses and dioxins). While the emissions are likely lower or at least on par with the emissions from the main fuel sources at the kiln (waste to energy materials that include but are not limited to plastics), they are still emissions, which we’re not fans of. It’s important to note that we weren’t able to identify any studies that solely measured emissions associated with incinerating materials that will be typically found in EnergyBags, but we believe that those emissions are likely to be similar to if not less than those in typical waste to energy materials.

2.  Authorities in the zero waste field do not consider waste-to-energy to be part of a zero waste strategy. In other words, if an organization’s goal is to be zero waste, the EnergyBags program doesn’t currently help you achieve that goal. Incineration essentially equals landfilling from the zero waste perspective.

3.  We are concerned about unintentionally growing the waste-to-energy (WTE) industry. In at least one case, a state classified WTE as a clean or renewable energy source, which then allows it to inappropriately compete against other truly renewable energy sources like wind and solar for tax subsidies or to meet a state’s clean energy mandates.

4.  Program sponsors often use misleading language when describing the program, such as calling it an “innovative recycling program”. It’s not recycling. At least not currently.

5.  There is legitimate concern that capturing and diverting these materials from the landfill will reduce the likelihood of and voracity with which organizations will pursue source reduction strategies for these materials.

6.  The cement kiln has multiple EPA clean air and two clean water violations. These such violations are unfortunately not uncommon in the cement kiln industry.  Plus, Dow has a spotty environmental record.

7.  Speaking of the EPA, their waste management hierarchy ranks the various waste management strategies from most to least environmentally preferred. The ranking is as follows (best to worst)

  1. Source reduction & reuse
  2. Recycling/composting
  3. Energy recovery
  4. Treatment & disposal

There are other issues illuminated in our white paper, but the aforementioned are those that we feel are most concerning.

However, in our conversations with Dow Chemical, the business behind the program, we learned their long-term goal is to transition away from channeling the material as feedstock for cement kiln operations and instead chemically recycle these soft plastics via the process of pyrolysis. Doing so is a much better outcome. Ideally there is no end state for materials (e.g., landfill or incineration). Rather, they continue to exist through a circular process where they are used over and over again. It’s a process that more closely mimics nature, where there is no true waste. Every material has a purpose. So, the long-term goal for the EnergyBag program is good.

You may be asking why not just skip over the incineration and go right to recycling these materials? Good question. The challenge in the short-term is building a large and reliable materials stream. Dow (or another third party) isn’t likely to invest in the equipment, processes, infrastructure, manpower, etc. until they reach a certain, steady threshold for the flow of these materials. The last thing they want is an expensive recycling machine and its operators to site idle.

The question then becomes, are we comfortable with the short-term negative consequences under the assumption that the long-term vision will be achieved? In our view, we are, but we’re not going to be very patient with the organizations involved as they work toward an incineration-to-recycling transition.

We recently led a waste characterization study for one of our larger clients, and we were struck by how prevalent soft plastics are. They are everywhere, and for some of our clients they are unavoidable. For this reason, we do feel that it’s worthwhile to invest in the EnergyBag program, which is really a statement of trust in the program’s sponsors. But we will continue to push our clients to focus on source reduction first and foremost.

We believe there are some important, short-term steps that should be taken by program sponsors. They include 1) a third party conducting a scientifically sound study to more accurately measure the environmental impacts of incinerating these materials, 2) for Dow and other program sponsors to more explicitly state their plans for transitioning from cement kiln incineration to chemical recycling, and 3) for program sponsors to tighten up the inaccurate language around the program (refrain from calling it recycling).

Finally, we are committed to staying up to date on the EnergyBag program. There is promise, and we are assuming positive intent on the part of the sponsors. We will keep a close eye on the program as it unfolds and develops. If we don’t see meaningful progress, we’ll likely rescind our recommendation and begin to unravel the steps made to participate in and support the program.

Download the full white paper here.

Onward and upward.

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