Three Projects that Show why Recovering Energy from Landfill Makes Sense


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By Ashley Halligan – analyst at Software Advice where she reports on sustainability topics. She also freelances in the sectors of travel and live music. Connect with her via LinkedIn.

It’s a well-known fact in the sustainability world that municipal solid waste (MSW) has become a growing problem. The number of U.S. landfills has declined in the past 20 years; however, their size has steadily increased. And, in 2010, Americans generated more than 250 million tons of MSW. That said, some ecologically savvy projects are arising and demonstrating that we can, in fact, use existing MSW landfills as an opportunity to create energy.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the growing trend of resource recovery facilities with David Specca, Assistant Director for Bioenergy and Controlled Environment Agriculture at the Rutgers University EcoComplex, and Barry Edwards, Director of Engineering and Utilities at Catawba County, whilst undertaking research for the company I work for. I was happy to learn that projects coast to coast are showing us the vast opportunities to capitalize on the waste epidemic.

Catawba County, North Carolina’s EcoComplex is a fascinating example of the symbiotic relationships stemming from partnerships between waste facilities and those reaping the benefits of the energy potential. An 800-acre site, the landfill is scattered with wells tapping methane produced from decomposition. The converted energy is enough to supply 1,500 residences. Appalachian State University then converts remaining heat energy into biodiesel.

Another interesting recovery project is that of Rutgers University EcoComplex. Its facility is 100 acres and produces enough energy to provide energy for several facilities, including a greenhouse that produces more than 10,000 plants each month.

BMW’s manufacturing facility in South Carolina sources two-thirds of its energy from methane extracted from Palmetto Landfill–then routed via pipeline to BMW’s facility. The facility has received recognition for its immense sustainability efforts by both Plant Engineering Magazine and the EPA, contributing to the overall reduction in statewide greenhouse emissions.

These resource recovery projects demonstrate that recovering energy makes sense. The EPA provides numerous examples of just why this is a beneficial practice: a direct reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, an indirect reduction of pollution by offsetting the use of nonrenewables, and a benefit to local economies stemming from revenue the sale of landfill gas.

So what does the future look like for resource recovery facilities? With numerous untapped potentials scattered amongst the nation’s landfills, Edwards says, “Applied industrial ecology to waste management will become the predominant waste management method–so you’ll see many similar projects in the immediate future. In fact, we average two tours per week at our complex–that’s the current level of interest shown by others.”

Furthermore, the EPA has rolled out its Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), which is a voluntary program for landfill operators, which encourages them to distribute captured methane emissions to neighboring communities and their facilities.

Do you have experience in resource recovery efforts? Feel free to share your insights in the comments below or get in touch.

Images via Ellesmere FNC and Catawba County

  • Jan Pecinovsky

    Core, a student cooperation in Belgium, is developing a district heating network for a city using leftover heat from a waste incinerator. ( -> Samso in Eeklo, only in Dutch)