Lancaster County’s businesses, residents and visitors throw away nearly 100 tons per day of food waste. What if you could capture and convert that waste into renewable energy?
That’s exactly what one local company plans to do. Since 2015, Uribe Refuse Services has been building the nation’s smallest privately-owned and operated commercial waste to energy facility.
Designed to process 30 tons per day – or about one-third of daily food waste in the area – the facility sits on less than one acre of Uribe’s shop on north 48th Street in Lincoln. Here, state-of-the-art equipment separates food waste from inorganic packaging and dinnerware items and prepares it to become renewable fuel for Uribe’s natural-gas powered refuse trucks.
“There is an economic and an ecological argument to do this,” owner Chuck Uribe says. “Over the last 5 years that we have been working on this project, our landfill fees have increased over 60%. For a family-owned company like ours, that amounts to over $300,000 a year in new operating expenses that we must account for if we want to keep our rates low.”
“Prior to the recent ban on cardboard, we’ve seen an increase in our recycling services,” Uribe continues. “It is encouraging to see this market grow. It also means more time on the road for refuse trucks. This results in an increase in diesel fuel consumption and emissions. If you want to increase recycling and reduce emissions related to waste management in the city, you have to use a cleaner-burning fuel. If you want to protect your budget from rising landfill fees and fuel costs, you have to make your own fuel. The fuel we will produce here is 10-times cleaner than diesel fuel and it comes from food waste that we collect.”
In 2015, Uribe Refuse Services was awarded a $424,000 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, which helped to cover the cost to install four 15,000-gallon stainless steel tanks on the property.
Waste to Energy Lincoln (WTEL), is the company Uribe started in 2015 to manage its food waste recycling program. Dave Dingman is the Project Manager.
“Each one of these tanks will process 1 ton per day of organic waste, such as food scraps and grass clippings,” Dingman says.
“Over a 3-week period, about 80% of the organic waste that we put into each tank will be converted into biogas, a renewable form of natural gas. Next, we process that biogas into pipeline quality renewable natural gas so we can fuel our vehicles and sell the excess to the gas company.”
“Our goal is to process 30 tons per day by the year 2020,” Dingman continues. “We will capture and use 4 tons per day of that material here at our facility. That will provide us with enough energy to fuel 6 of our refuse trucks every day. The rest of the materials we process will be available to support the city’s effort to fuel city buses via the wastewater treatment system and to other commercial interests.”
“At our goal, we will be able to produce 200,000 gallons per year of renewable fuel,” Dingman continues. “That’s about 15% of the estimated 1.3 million gallons of diesel fuel consumed by local waste haulers every year. We’ll reduce emissions by 20,000 tons annually.”
“As a pilot project, the idea is that if we can make it work here, you can make it work anywhere,” Chuck Uribe says. “The core technology is proven. The real challenge is economic.”
In November 2017, WTEL began operating phase one of a 3-phase process to complete this ambitious venture.
“We started collecting food waste in August 2015,” Dingman says. “Back then, we collected about 3,200lbs per month from two nearby public schools. Today, we collect about 40,000lbs per month from 14 locations citywide including schools, hotels, ballparks, churches and business offices.”
“From a technological perspective, phase 1 is about creating efficiencies in our collections and processing methods,” Dingman continues. “From a business perspective, it’s about public education, establishing customer demand for our services and building those relationships to carry us through phases 2 and 3 of this project.”
“Private sustainability initiatives and public interest are growing demand for waste management companies that can offer a full suite of services at a reasonable price,” Chuck Uribe says. “We can bundle services like trash, recycling, roll-off containers, yard waste, scrap tires and food waste into one monthly bill. On average, our customers will save $200 or more annually.”
“Do we have time for a shameless plug?” Dingman asks. “In support of our goal to divert 30 tons per day of food waste by 2020, we are offering 20% off the first year of food waste collections to businesses and organizations that join our 30 by 20 Club. The membership is free, but the benefits last a lifetime.