‘What Goes Around, Comes Around’ When It Comes To Industrial Waste

Government and Politics

September 28, 2022

From: Washington Governor Jay Inslee

“What goes around, comes around,” as the idiom goes. What one puts into the world is often returned in kind. It’s true of good humor, and it’s true of malice. It’s also true of waste — the effects of consumption increasingly confront humanity.

The consequences of human activity are shocking. Nearly 85% of wildfires are human-caused. About 27% percent of greenhouse gases come from vehicles and transportation. One million species are threatened with extinction. Garbage is swirling in gargantuan ocean patches. The planet has lost 11% of its tree cover since 2000.

The notion of a “circular economy” involves minimizing or repurposing waste. Innovative firms large and small are experimenting with circular methods to reduce waste and emissions, and even recapture profits. Locally, a Seattle nonprofit hired refugee artisans to convert waste products into tote bags and medical scrubs. A Tacoma utility is repurposing biosolids as soil and fertilizer.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s trade mission to the Nordic countries included visits to industrial sites practicing circular methods. It’s time to put a better foot forward — these Nordic countries are leading the dance.

Making use of waste

Just outside Helsinki, the Suomenojan Cooling and Heating Plant generates heat for residents of nearby Espoo, Kauniainen, and Kirkkonummi. Homes in the region are warmed by district heating — underground pipes convey warm water through a municipal network into residential radiators.

The plant’s fuel mix continues to evolve in pursuit of zero-emissions operation. Plant operators built a heat storage container to preserve excess heat. Carbon-neutral biosolids have replaced coal fuel sources. Several electric boilers were added.

Most recently, Microsoft and plant operators devised a method to recapture heat generated by servers for municipal use. The recaptured heat may serve nearly 40% of the surrounding population’s heating needs.

“We take outside air in to cool down our servers, and then that air heats up slightly,” said Noelle Walsh, Microsoft’s vice president of cloud services and innovation. “Fortum has the technology to extract the heat from that air for distribution.”

“We have a heating network with hot water powering the whole city,” said Panu Ahrnberg, Fortum’s head of heating and cooling production. “When Microsoft recovers the heat in a water circle going through their plant, we take it in our heat pump plant. The heat pump utilizes that energy to heat the water going to our customers.”

The Suomenojan facility is exploring several other methods to improve efficiency and reduce emissions. Artificial intelligence helps to efficiently allocate heat and conserve power. A new heat pump recovers excess heat from treated wastewater and seawater, serving 20% of district needs. Industrial air-to-water heat pumps will operate by 2028 to improve efficiency and help cool the region.

Innovative forest products

The governor also stopped in Stockholm, Sweden at a research facility pioneering forestry products. The Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) is a state-owned operation weaving ties between the public and private sectors in service of sustainability.

RISE research encompasses many categories, including wood technology. From load-bearing applications for laminated timber to improved fire safety of timber structures, RISE imagines new possibilities for wood products.

Forestry is one of Washington state’s legacy industries. On Sep 28th, more than 1,700 businesses generate $36 billion in annual revenue from Washington forest products. Innovation might enhance competitiveness and create new jobs.

At the molecular level, wood is held together by organic polymers called lignins. For trees, they help conduct water through the organism. For researchers, they present opportunities to engineer new properties in wood products. Lignin softening might permit bending and densification of solid wood, among other possibilities.

“At Washington State University in the Tri-Cities, we’re using lignin in many ways,” said WSU Chancellor Sandra Haynes. “One of the primary ways is to create biodegradable Styrofoam which has already gone to market — you’ll find it in meal kit boxes you can have sent to your home. All of those are lined with our biodegradable Styrofoam so that all the packaging that arrives at your door can be recycled.”

Haynes and Inslee were introduced to some of RISE’s latest lignin research; the institute has mixed wood with electrical components to make conducting filaments that might comprise a type of battery. The concept is already approaching the market — a Swedish carmaker has entered an agreement with a supplier to develop batteries made from renewable wood sources.

“I’ve already sent a message to our researcher about this battery research. We would love to collaborate,” said Haynes.

Injecting jobs to replace extractive industries

In addition to preserving the planet, clean energy offers another big benefit: jobs. Solar farms, wind farms, dams, and clean power plants don’t run themselves. Washingtonians keep them going. The state is better off powered by locally-generated electricity rather than nonrenewable fossil fuels extracted half a world away.

Many clean energy jobs will be found where they are needed most — rural communities.

Sweden is experiencing its own “green transition” and has committed to restoring jobs to communities formerly defined by “extractive economies.” Local economies experience difficult aftermath once a mine closes or mill shutters. Clean energy presents opportunities to breathe new life into suffering local economies, both by creating jobs and reducing energy costs.

The state Department of Commerce is spurring a “green transition” of its own through programs like the Clean Energy Fund. Since 2013, the fund has allocated more than $150 million in grants to organizations and researchers exploring new energy concepts. Grants from the Clean Energy Fund have supported firms like Beta Hatch, a commercial insect farm in Cashmere that recycles data center waste heat to nurture mealworms to be used as livestock feed. Grant funds also helped the Composite Recycling Technology Center in Port Angeles, which recycles carbon fiber scrap to make products like cross-laminated timber.

The state Department of Commerce has just launched an Industrial Symbiosis Program to repurpose industrial waste for mutual benefit between businesses. Researchers at Washington State University are partnering with Inland Empire Paper and Qualterra to use fly ash from the paper mill, biochar, and agricultural waste to improve soil health and crop yields. The City of Pasco is exploring the reuse of food processing wastewater through a system that will protect groundwater from nitrate while generating a value-added product. Truly, one company’s trash is another’s treasure.

What goes around, comes around. By investing in research and promoting public and private sector collaboration, Washington state is putting out good — and good is coming back.