Your Town Now: Is Fiberight right for Iowa City?

IC is contemplating a new trash-to-ethanol initiative, but some questions remain. — photo by Phil Roeder

The City of Iowa City is contemplating signing a contract with a company called Fiberight for trash-to-ethanol conversion. Fiberight is a Maryland-based company that creates cellulosic ethanol and biogas from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

After a Fiberight presentation at a city council meeting in early January, it was decided that further investigation should be undertaken, that preliminary negotiations could be started and that public discussion would be scheduled. When things reach the ‘investigate and negotiate’ stage, it is very likely they will come to pass, so it’s important to understand what’s at stake. Public meetings to discuss Fiberight are expected to take place in May or June, and the council will not take up the issue until then. We want the city council to represent the residents of Iowa City in this deal, and, unless members ask tough questions, think about the answers and thoroughly discuss the issue, residents’ interests may not be protected.

Logistics and Economics

Before going to Fiberight’s conversion process machinery in Blairstown, Iowa, the collected mixed trash must be sorted in order to remove the non-convertible materials. Will a new processing facility be built in Iowa City to do this initial sorting? Or will all our trash be trucked directly to the Fiberight sorting facility that is planned for construction in Marion—a town that has already signed a contract with the company? Where would a sorting facility in Iowa City be located and at what cost to taxpayers? Who will monitor the sorting process to ensure that it is meeting contractual obligations? What is the cost per ton of pre-processing and sorting waste for inclusion in the biofuel creation process?

Will the cost of a gallon of the finished trashanol include the cost of transportation and processing of material from curbsides in Iowa City to the initial sorting plant and then to Blairstown; including vehicles and their maintenance, road wear, fuel and labor?

Is Fiberight asking for a “put or pay” contract with a minimum tonnage? And if Iowa City fails to meet that tonnage goal will it have to pay Fiberight a penalty (possibly leading to discontinuation of the existing recycling and composting programs to increase tonnage for Fiberight)?

Environmental Impact

Mashed trash will need water to be added to facilitate enzyme action. How much water will be needed to process the waste and run the Blairstown plant? Iowa’s supply of water is already overtaxed. Where will that water come from?

Fiberight’s process uses added enzymes to break down cellulose waste more efficiently and quickly than ordinary physical forces (heat, pressure) can, thereby lowering production costs. How much enzyme addition will be needed and how is this additive manufactured? Is it consumed in the process, or recycled? Or will it need disposal? Will it be delivered as microbes containing it or as an independent product? Will it be a biohazard if it is released accidentally?

Everything in trash is not made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (ethanol’s components). How much residual waste will remain after sorting? Where will this waste be stored and disposed? Even if it’s a small amount relative to the initial mass put into the Fiberight processor, it could be nasty stuff—containing toxic heavy metals, VOCs, PCBs, halides, asbestos, etc. Will it be trucked back to Iowa City and put in our landfill?

Will Iowa City’s very successful recycling program partnership with City Carton be maintained? Will curbside pickup of recyclables continue? Will the very successful and expanding composting efforts being done at the Johnson County landfill continue so that local gardeners can go on putting much of our food waste to good use to grow more food? What will happen to all the wood waste that currently becomes wood chips for mulching and landscaping? Will we lose all of our successful waste reduction programs in the apparent rush for trashanol/E85?

Going Forward

Before moving forward with any contract, we propose: one, that the city hire an independent engineer to review the schematics of the Fiberight conversion facility in Blairstown and the facility proposed near Marion and offer his/her professional opinion regarding the positive and negative aspects of the plant as well as the contract provisions; two, that the city have an ironclad contract that protects the city from any liability, bankruptcy or harm to the environment associated with Fiberight; and three, that the city provide no subsidy or grant of land to Fiberight, that it continue its recycling and composting programs, and not agree to any “put or pay” stipulation in the contract.

Fiberight has raked in approximately $55 million in government and state loans, grants and private investments. If the EPA’s proposed reduction of the Renewable Fuel Standard moves forward, one has to wonder: Is investing in celluolosic ethanol production a doomed venture?

Why is ever more effort going into producing more liquid fuel for vehicles, instead of making increased efforts to produce energy that is less polluting such as solar and wind energy? Is the ultimate goal to turn absolutely everything fermentable into E85, while ignoring the effects on the food supply, air quality, water resources and the environment as a whole?

Can we curb our consumerist-insane society and economy so that we produce less trash in the first place? Because “throwing away” is really just “moving it to another place”—where it may be out of sight, out of mind for the thrower, but will become a problem somewhere else.

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