Think of the worst nightmare for the multibillion-dollar garbage incineration industry: What if there were a new technology that turned trash into a highly profitable product and posed no threat to the environment?
Such a development would make state-of-the-art European-imported burn plants, which have been promoted as the wave of the future, as obsolete as eight-track tapes.And guess what? A pair of Utah entrepreneurial inventors, Alan M. Neves and Roger T. Bond, who started Salt Lake-based Biomass International Inc., say they have discovered the technology described above and are promoting it. Whether the process is a cure-all or pie in the sky remains to be seen. State officials are particularly wary of a claim that the process produces no pollution.
But Neves and Bond are confident about their system.
"Both burn plants and landfills could become dinosaurs," Neves said. "We don't burn it (garbage) and we don't bury it. We convert it into products that create a revenue stream."
According to the inventors, Biomass technology breaks down organic garbage, such as food scraps and paper, into the basic sugars or glucose, which then ferments until it becomes ethanol. They say the ethanol could then be sold as a gasoline additive to offset the plant's operating cost. They add that the fuel could also be sold for profit. In the Biomass process, metals and glass are separated and recycled. Non-recyclable plastics and tires are shredded and burned to produce steam and electricity that run the plant. Biomass inventors say the pollution produced by the burning would be taken care of by state-of-the-art pollution controls.
Potentially unsafe byproducts of the process, including acids used to reduce organic wastes and emissions from incineration, are treated to become benign. Bond and Neves said they can turn 90 percent of a waste heap into ethanol. Much of what is left is "sterilized dirt," which is placed in a landfill.
They said the profits from ethanol, estimated at about $56 for every ton of garbage, make it cost-effective to install pollution controls to create a sterile byproduct.
Bond said their operation is more economical than mass-burn plants because they would use standardized industrial equipment.Mass-burn plants require specially designed furnaces, he said.
While Biomass has been touting its invention since it first opened a small pilot plant in an Ogden industrial park in 1982, the company has had a hard time convincing local governments to invest in a system that doesn't have much of a track record - until Sept. 28. On that date the Weber County Commission signed a 25-year contract to allow Biomass to build a full-scale $25 million plant at the county's Ogden landfill. The contract was signed only after Biomass guaranteed to fund the entire project and not raise landfill tipping fees, except adjustments for inflation.
Weber County officials are smiling about the arrangement. The plant, which can handle up to 800 tons of garbage a day, is expected to extend the life of the landfill from 22 years to an estimated 80 years, Lloyd Barney, Weber County director of contract management, said.
"It will be pollution-free," Barney said. "The county taxpayers will have zero liability."
The proposed plant, expected to be built by April 1990, could be the litmus test for a new age in garbage disposal. If it works in Utah, Neves and Bond hope to convince other officials, facing tough choices about siting new landfills or burn plants, to look at their "environmentally safe" alternative. Utah County officials, for example, have expressed interest in the Biomass system but are taking a wait-and-see attitude as they observe the Ogden plant.
Bond admits the plant will be one-of-a-kind because of the almost risk-free arrangement it has with the county. However, the goal in Weber County will be to break even and prove the technology works.
Biomass officials admit even if the Weber County plant does all they say it will, taking their technology elsewhere still could be a hard sell. They say some garbage incineration industry leaders, who have invested millions to bring European mass-burn technology to the United States, have sought to discredit them.