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What else is in the mix for Cleveland's waste-to-energy plan? How do closed loop buildings perform?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/10/11 @ 1:26pm

There's an important back story to the City of Cleveland's push to gasify waste for energy (the reason for Mayor Jackson's trip last week to Japan).

At play is the notion that waste-to-energy-like recycling-is an 'end of the tailpipe' solution to the problem of too much refuse without a 'closed loop'. The phrase 'end of tailpipe' comes from the efforts to make internal combustion engines or power plant smokestacks less polluting by filtering out the soot just before it is emitted into our environment. Better are the solutions that go to the heart of the matter (is the source of the energy clean?)

In the case of waste reduction, there's an order that might make more sense from a cost-benefit standpoint than assuming a $150 million debt for an unproven techno fix. We're not knocking the city for trying, but there may be a cheaper solution that also has multiple benefits.

1. The first order is for the city to do all it can to stimulate residential composting (a step back from that, really, is reducing food waste by boosting the supply of tasty local food). Organic matter like apple cores can combine with yard waste like leaves and in a simple, inexpensive composter break down into a deep, nutrient-rich soil.

Is the city doing all it can to promote food waste composting with partners that have resources like the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District (which supplies deeply discounted composters and leads workshops on how to use them)? If that means supplying a composter to every resident who wants it, it may help reduce the need for a high energy process to break down food waste, which can account for 40% of the volume of trash heading to the landfill.

2. Can the city create a curbside pick up program for composting like the city of Huron did in 2008? As GCBL reported here, Huron stunned the world when it created a curbside composting program, one of a handful of cities in the country to do so.

What's interesting about the PD article covering Mayor Jackson's trip to Japan is the quote from Duke Fultz, who runs a waste hauling company that-along with pioneers in the compost business, Barnes Nursery-make the Huron composting program possible (Fultz mentions a failed waste-to-energy plant that he was to be involved with in Sandusky County).

What lessons can Cleveland take from the limited fee-for-service? Is there an opportunity to cost out a pilot curbside composting program in Cleveland that is far less expensive than a waste-to-energy plant? How do you include residents who don't want to or don't have the space (like apartments and condos downtown) to run composters on their property?

3. The city can encourage citizen participation in waste reduction by educating them about the benefits (such as, having more resources). Check out these "Four Principles of Waste Reduction."

The first principle deals again with packaging-a byproduct of buying processed food. Can the city tie its vacant land reuse strategy to more intensive urban farming and repurpose the resources preserved at the end of the pipe-waste hauling service reductions?

4. Learn from your neighbors. Plenty of green cities, like nearby Oberlin and its green leaning college, are experimenting with lower cost technologies that handle food waste. Last week, Oberlin College started operating a food waste pulper (pictured right) in its dining halls that reduces waste to about one-eighth of its original volume. Squeezing out the liquid makes it lighter and easier to transport (to nearby George Jones Farm for compost).

· This article about the design of Oberlin's Adam J. Lewis Environmental Center helps visualize the idea behind buildings that are designed to operate with closed-loop systems, similar to those found in nature. Architect William McDonough said his intent with the Lewis Center was to design a building that acts like a tree. Always the agent provocateur, he asked: "What if a building could be a living thing? And if it was, what would it mean to design in support of nature, what principles would we need to operate under?"

McDonough and Oberlin's iconoclastic Environmental Studies professor, David Orr, set the bar high in that regard.

Although a data dashboard they built with DOE to measure their progress shows that even visionaries can learn. The dashboard shows real-time measurements of energy produced (from the 60 kW solar array on the roof) versus consumed-it is a net producer this month.

But it also shows that the indoor, solar aquatic Living Machine (pictured top) processing all of the building's wastewater with plants for reuse in toilets is "oversized for its single-building application," writes the DOE, "enhancing its visible presence and teaching capacity, but also consuming more energy than necessary and frustrating attempts to keep it running smoothly."

Nonetheless, the Lewis building continues to serve as a learning lab for ideas in sustainable building that emerged on the scene in the 1990s and now counts 1.59 billion square feet of LEED certified commercial space to its credit.

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