New technologies can get more value out of trash

For the past few years, Ramsey and Washington counties have been exploring new technologies that can help us get more value out of trash, even as we work to increase recycling and reduce the amount of trash we throw away.

These new technologies can help us produce energy or fuels, or make compost, or make materials that are used to make consumer products. At the same time, they can help us reduce the amount of carbon and methane gas that we know is contributing to climate change.

For example, we are studying how we can make the most from the biggest recyclable that remains in our household and commercial trash today. That’s food waste.

Right now, food waste — about 25% of trash collected in Ramsey and Washington counties — is dumped in a landfill where it does absolutely no good. That’s foolish because food waste offers so much value.

Our residents agree. In a recent survey, three out of four residents — homeowners and renters alike — said they are willing to recycle kitchen food waste.

That support has encouraged cities to examine whether to change their trash and recycling collection programs to allow homeowners to separate their food waste from household trash, much like they separate recyclables, that a food-waste recycler would collect. But, county officials also know from experience that it isn’t possible to recover all recyclable food waste this way.

New food waste recycling technologies may help us capture biogas to use as a fuel in vehicles or to generate electricity. Food waste can also be converted to nutrient-rich compost for use building soils in places like parks, along roads, in community gardens and on farm fields.

The future also could include using new technologies that more efficiently convert trash to energy. One trash-to-energy technology we’re looking at is called gasification. Using gasification, it may be possible to extract energy in the form of biofuels to power vehicles, or to extract simple materials that we know can be used by others to manufacture consumer products.

As the analysis proceeds, county commissioners hope to have a better understanding of which technologies can get the most value from our trash.