Changing Waste into Biofuel

Guest blogger, Chris Choate, VP of Sustainability at Recology, leads us through the dynamic world of creating biofuels.


What’s eating my garbage now???

In a January Article “Microbes Produce Fuels Directly from Biomass” author Lynn Yarris of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, reports that “deploying the tools of synthetic biology, U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) researchers engineered a strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria to produce biodiesel fuel and other important chemicals derived from fatty acids.” Scientifically, this is very exciting news!

Recology is driven to find the social, environmental, and economical solution to powering a fleet of vehicles with a fuel produced from the residual resources (waste material) of your trash. We have evaluated, researched and collected knowledge on how-to generate and utilize biomethane from our landfills and anaerobic digesters to power our trucks. We have started integrating biofuels into our fleet fuel sources by converting equipment and utilizing compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and B20 biodiesel. Having a biodiesel fuel created by E. coli bacteria from the waste material we collect would absolutely be consistent to our rally cry of Waste Zero.

Recology continues to partner with the City of San Fracisco in their effort to lead the nation in diverting material from landfills. Over 70% of the material diverted is collected through an integrated system of reduction, reuse, recycling and composting. Even with all this activity, over 62% of the current material going to the landfill is degradable and a good source of biomass material. From our research, Recology has found that refuse-derived biomass is a good source of fatty acids. For Recology to deploy the tools of biology is key to achieving the Zero Waste goal.

The City’s Department of Environment created the City’s Zero Waste Plan from over-riding environmental principles that include:

  • Reusing materials at a level that is their next best and highest use
  • Avoiding high-temperature conversion (incineration)
  • Achieving the highest carbon footprint reduction possible
  • Employing local and biological processes that mimick nature

Currently a biology process is used, managed, and exploited to stabilize thousands of tons of rotting organic material a year via a process Recology uses and proudly calls composting. To further employ a biological process to produce a biodiesel from the remaining residuals in the city’s waste stream is consistent with these over-riding principles. However, the term synthetic is a concern and would require further evaluation regarding any potential biohazard that could be created by the engineered strain of E.coli. That alone may delay the commercialization of the discovery for a good many years.

Stay tuned! The appetite for something that will eat my garbage is changing fast…

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