Mountains of garbage produced in local jurisdictions and even out of state are piling up in Virginia’s landfills. Meanwhile, the U.S. recycling market is depressed due to foreign countries’ refusal to take any more of our trash due to contamination problems. In 2018, China no longer accepted most shipping containers of imported trash; and last year, Malaysia followed suit, saying it refused to be “the rubbish dump of the world.”
METT USA, a company based in Smithfield County, Va., wants to come to the rescue by building a plant in Virginia that uses super-hot “plasma arc gasification” to turn trash into energy. Its unpatented process heats up the trash to nearly 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit — hotter than the surface of the sun — without using combustion. The high heat transforms simple organic matter into synthetic gas that can be used for electric power generation, including powering the plant itself. Inorganic waste turns into a glass-like residue that can be used for construction projects.
However, to be economically feasible, the new facility would need a 25-year contract and guarantees of at least a million tons of trash annually, says company founder Mark Gay, a retired Army colonel. For those reasons, Hampton Roads has rejected the project — twice.
Critics point out that the technology is untested; the syngas it produces is prohibitively expensive, costing anywhere between $300 and $1,000 per metric ton more than natural gas or other fossil fuels; and there are fears that it will release toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the environment.
Since 2011, high costs and technological challenges forced the cancellation of other trash gasification projects in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, England, Sweden and Germany. In 2015, a plasma gasification demonstration plant in Ottawa that burned through $300 million in financing and failed to raise millions more it needed lost its city contract and had to file for creditor protection. In 2011, a similar project in Attleboro, Mass., was shelved after protests from local environmental groups.
There are currently no trash gasification plants operating in the U.S., so there’s no sure way to know if the idea is technologically, environmentally and economically feasible.
But Virginia doesn’t have to be the guinea pig in this intriguing, but untried, experiment in trash disposal. METT USA reportedly is negotiating with state and local officials in Salem County, N.J., to build a $2.2 billion zero-to-landfill gasification plant there. The county’s director of economic development says the potential jobs and environmental benefits “make this a wonderful project …. We’re just waiting on the money” — mostly private equity — to begin construction.
It will cost Virginia — which still imports more than 5 million tons of trash, mostly from the District of Columbia, Maryland and New York — nothing to sit back and wait to see if trash gasification is indeed the wave of the future or an idea whose time has still not come.