BLAIRSTOWN — Craig Stuart-Paul wants to make something from nothing, and in the process bring a small, forlorn-looking ethanol plant south of this Benton County town back from the dead.
Stuart-Paul, with the distinguished-sounding name and a British accent to go with it, says he and his company, Maryland-based Fiberight LLC, are ready to turn municipal garbage destined for the landfill into both compressed natural gas and ethanol for vehicles. Along the way, too, they will remove recyclables from the trash and even grab pesky plastic bags and wrappers of every kind and have them converted into a special wax.
“We want it all,” says Stuart-Paul, Fiberight’s chief executive officer, of the trash in your house. “And your dirty diapers, too.”
Two weeks ago, Fiberight signed a deal with the city of Marion in Linn County to take on some of the Cedar Rapids metro area’s garbage, and he will submit a proposal to the city of Iowa City by Sept. 19 to do the same there. He has his eye on Des Moines garbage, too.
With an eye on a national stage, Fiberight is calling the ethanol it intends to produce in Blairstown, “trashanol,” a name it has trademarked.
In the current era of corn-to-ethanol plants that can produce 100 million gallons of fuel or more a year, the 15-year-old Blairstown facility initially was designed to produce only about 5.4 million gallons of ethanol a year, which is just what Fiberight was looking for when it bought the plant back in 2009.
Stuart-Paul says the economics of the plant can work for Fiberight because of the low cost of the garbage-based organic feedstock, the sugars from which it will convert to ethanol, compared to the higher cost of using corn to make ethanol.
If it sounds like something of a magic act in the making, it is accompanied by degrees of skepticism and anticipation by those in the solid waste industry.
Jennifer Fencl, environmental services director with the East Central Iowa Council of Governments, says there has been much talk and many concept papers about waste-to-energy plans in recent years, but she says she’s not sure the era of municipal solid waste-to-energy is arriving just yet.
“It’s like standing in a train tunnel. You see the light, but you’re not sure how far away it is … and how long it will take to get here,” Fencl says.
Rick Fosse, public works director for the city of Iowa City, is awaiting proposals from Fiberight and other firms by a Sept. 19 proposal deadline as the city looks for ways to divert more from its landfill. Firms with a variety of technologies attended a pre-proposal meeting, he says.
“I’ll say a fair amount of skepticism is healthy with any technology and with any long-term partnership, which is what any firm is looking for,” Fosse says. “ … But it appears, looking at the industry, it looks like we’re turning a corner where solid waste is not an asset yet, but where it appears less of a liability.”
Fiberight’s plan to turn waste-to-ethanol in Blairstown is inextricably tied to the company’s accompanying plan to build a $20-million-plus waste sorting and pulping center in Marion that Fiberight is calling its Marion Waste Revitalization Center.
Two weeks ago, the Marion City Council and Fiberight inked a development deal that will permit the company to build its facility behind the city’s Public Service Department. In trade, Marion gets lower garbage fees, host-city payments, cheaper, cleaner compressed natural gas for Marion city vehicles and less trash in the landfill on its northern border.
Stuart-Paul says Fiberight also will install an E85 pump so residents “can fuel cars on the same trash they threw out a couple weeks before.”
Stuart-Paul says Fiberight picked the small Blairstown ethanol plant because it was inexpensive and right-sized, and Marion rather than the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency with its landfill on Marion’s border because Marion has welcomed them.
Marion’s goal of becoming a “zero-waste” city is a target which Stuart-Paul says is “100 percent aligned with what we’re looking to do.”
The Marion center, which Stuart-Paul says will be five times as large as Fiberight’s demonstration center in Virginia, will move loads of garbage via conveyor to a rotating drum to be broken down, heated and cleaned. The resulting popcorn-size organic pulp is screened and cleaned more, with the cleanest pulp shipped to the Blairstown ethanol plant. Wash water containing residual food goes to an anaerobic digester in the Marion facility to be converted to compressed natural gas. In the process, recyclables are snatched before about 20 percent of what has come goes to the landfill.
Stuart-Paul says the Marion process is similar to successful ones in Europe.
“We’re not engaged so much in rocket science, but we’ve advanced and optimized a well-proven process for waste,” he says.
As for the Blairstown ethanol plant, Stuart-Paul says Fiberight has produced ethanol from waste fibers there, had the ethanol certified and sold, learned lessons and now employs four people to retool the plant for production.
Ethanol produced in Blairstown, he says, will be more valuable than compressed gas produced at the Marion waste facility, but he says the Marion operation will be profitable even if the Blairstown plant takes more time to perfect.
To skeptics, Fiberight’s Stuart-Paul says the company is doing more than talking.
The company, he points out, has secured a $25 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a $2.9 million grant from the Iowa Power Fund and more than $20 million in private investment. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved Fiberight’s plan to separate recyclables from municipal solid waste.
ECICOG’s Fencl says the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency and other solid-waste agencies in Iowa have diverted a wide range of recyclables and other materials from landfills and are investing to take advantage of any new breakthroughs.
The challenge, she says, long has been to make plans work financially in an industry where costs climb every time garbage is touched, sorted, shredded, pulped, digested and moved.
Stuart-Paul says Fiberight is not proposing “a pig in a poke.”
“One hundred and seventy-five-million tons of waste is disposed of every year in the United States with little or no recovery of energy or value,” he says. “And that is a big resource opportunity.”