A November roundtable conversation hosted by ReImagine Appalachia looked into manufacturing and new prospects for zero waste in the sector. Priorities to Remediate, Recover and Repurpose themed the webinar with half a dozen operators and consultants providing their take on next steps.

Host Patricia DeMarco of Borough of Forest Hills, Pennsylvania opened the conversation, immediately establishing the importance of the zero waste for the Appalachia region by highlighting the historic wastefulness of post-War manufacturing and construction in America.

“Of all the material created since 1955, less than a tenth of one percent is still in use today, and much of the material that has been discarded remains in landfills or in the ocean, or somewhere else in the biosphere, accumulating as discarded trash of our civilization.”

Christina Cilento from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) contributed a candid perspective about intentionality and starting from circular principles.

Zero waste doesn't really just happen out of the goodness of people's hearts, as much as I think we all would love to believe that it can. I think it does really need to be an economical business decision to get to the scale of change that we need. That's where public policy comes in, because it can provide some of the incentives that can really make circularity an easy decision for businesses.”

On thinking about assets and re-purposing existing infrastructure and placing metrics on utilities, Cilento goes further.

“Are we locating facilities on green fields, or are we taking advantage of existing industrial sites that can potentially be remediated and repurposed (brown fields or coal plants)? When it comes to the manufacturing process, are we using energy and water as efficiently as we possibly can? Are we treating waters, which can be reused after it goes through manufacturing site? Then are we making sure that we're using any byproducts that might arise in the manufacturing process?

Kristen Olmi, Chief Economic Development Strategist at KO Consulting, LLC followed by sharing three components to net zero in manufacturing:

  1. Planning local climate action to help access federal funds
  2. Research and development
  3. Local level policy change with community engagement

Graeme Miller, Assistant Director at U.S. Department of Energy’s Midwest CHP Technical Assistance Partnership outlined the inefficiency of the existing electricity grid.

“So today in the United States, the efficiency of the grid hasn't changed that much since the 1950s. Of all the fuel input it into the system - whether it's from nuclear power plants, oil, gas, even solar PV cells - only one-third of that input energy is converted to actual useful electricity at the point of use. Two-thirds of this energy is wasted as heat, either up a [chimney] stack or, with PV, the panel can't capture that thermal energy. So there's a lot of waste right now in the electric distribution system that if we capture we can make ourselves more efficient.”

Miller continues to highlight the importance of capturing heat and methane from waste water through anaerobic digestion, also citing the role that utilities play in guiding customers on choices.

“What can utilities do? They're the ones that customers have to interact with when they build on-site generation and when they're capturing waste to generate electricity. The utility is always the one that can make or break a project, and we've seen that thousands of times in the midwest. Utilities can remove barriers in the form of rates and tariffs, what are called stand-by rates. They can recognize this as a solution to meet congested grids, so they don't have to build updated transformers.They can also provide incentives recognizing that there's a value of resiliency, of reliability and a handful of other things so absolutely a a role for public policy.”

Joanne Martin of ReImagine Beaver County (Facebook) was the final panelist to present, speaking about barriers associated with community visioning and implementation. Martin’s “dogged will” current targets a new petro-chemical project to introduce an alternative to plastic-waste product.

During the Q&A, attendee Patrick Kelley provided a real-life example from a small manufacturer. His company uses recycled plastic to make fence posts to sell to home owners and farmers. Sometimes when they purchase the recycled plastic, it comes with paper and cardboard attached. A wash system has proven effective, but it produces papery waste waste which ends up in the municipal system, when it could be separated and turned into cardboard. His business’ scale means that Private Equity not interested, nor does government.

You can watch a recording of the webinar here. Resources shared during the event: