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From the Trash to the Tank

Those high oil prices have helped turn ethanol into a political darling, but lately it seems like the party's over. There's concern the industry's using too much corn. That's contributing to rising food prices. Well, some companies want to avoid the controversy. For the Environment Report, Shawn Allee explains how they want to make ethanol from our table scraps.

To give you a sense of how touchy the ethanol issue's gotten, consider what happened to Presidential candidate Barack Obama. Last year, he supported mandates to add billions of gallons of ethanol to our fuel stream. But recently, on Meet the Press, he was defensive.

“If it turns out, we got to make changes to our ethanol policy to help people get something to eat, that's the step we have to take. But I also believe ethanol has been an important transitional tool for us to start dealing with our long-term energy crisis.”

Obama and other ethanol backers say we're not stuck with corn-based ethanol. We can use wood chips or energy crops like switchgrass.

But this cellulosic ethanol is a ways off.

First, the technology's expensive. Plus, farmers don't even grow energy crops now.

So, some companies hope to make ethanol from stuff that doesn't need farms at all. It would come from garbage cans, like this one at a coffee shop.

“In that receptacle there's a lot of paper, and there's some food bits and there's some scraps. So, we're able to take the the cellulosic material and turn that into sugar. And we ferment that sugar and then we distill into ethanol.”

Zig Resiak is with a start-up company called Indiana Ethanol Power. He says garbage could compete with corn.

“If you have a corn-to-ethanol facility, you're going to pay for the feedstock. Trash, we don't pay for it. The municipalities actually pay us to take the trash, just as they would pay the landfills to take the trash.”

Resiak's company isn't the only one to figure this out. At least four other ethanol firms are asking cities to hand over their trash, and cash. Besides being cheaper, there might be other advantages to using garbage for ethanol.

Bob Dineen is with the industry group Renewable Fuels Association.

“We have garbage all across the country.”

Here's why that matters.

Before it makes it to the pump, ethanol needs to be blended at refineries. Dineens says those refineries are far from corn farms and rural ethanol plants, but refineries are often close to big metro areas, and big-city trash.

“A company that is able to produce from local landfill refuse - he's clearly going to have an advantage in terms of transportation, feedstock costs, and all the rest.”

Well, that's the theory, anyway. The market hasn't tested garbage-based ethanol yet.

So, what's stopping companies like Indiana Ethanol Power from giving it a go?

Resiak says it's simple - cities just haven't been willing to part with their trash.

“Municipalities are very comfortable with putting it in the back of a truck and letting it go into a landfill. They don't think about it twice. But for us to come in and say we're going to take it cheaper and save you millions of dollars a year on your tipping fee, that's different and that's kind of scary, and they want to take a good, strong look at that.”

Resiak predicts by the time cities do come around to the idea, there'll be even more companies ready to take garbage bags out of their hands.


Music Button: Eric Lugosch, Strike, from the CD Black Key Blues, (Acoustic Music records)

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