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Waste Management squeezes fuel from landfills

California project is producing liquefied natural gas from organic decomposition in landfills.

A tanker carrying liquefied natural gas that was made from harvesting the naturally occurring gas produced from the decomposition of organic trash. The Linde Group

Trash collection giant Waste Management and the Linde Group petroleum engineering firm have partnered to create a plant that makes liquefied natural gas (LNG) from landfill gas, both companies announced this week.

Linde designed and operates the plant which is located close to Waste Management's Altamont Landfill near Livermore, Calif.

"The opening of the world's largest landfill-gas-to-LNG plant right here in California is a milestone and a testament to our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now that the technology has been proven, we look forward to seeing its adoption spread so more vehicles can run on garbage," Linda Adams, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement.

Contrary to what might be inferred from Adams' enthusiastic sound bite, the project is not the utopistic dream of incinerating any old trash in a DeLorean for fuel, nor has either company claimed this. What the project does show is an idea that reduces pollution in two ways. The renewable source for fuel is also a naturally occurring gas that would have otherwise released itself into the atmosphere.

Waste Management collects the gas that is produced from the naturally occurring decomposition of organic trash in its Livermore landfill. The Linde plant then purifies and processes that gas into LNG. The LNG is then used to fuel some of Waste Management's fleet for collecting trash and recycling. Those vehicles, of course, having been slightly modified so that they can run on LNG.

While the plant has only produced about 200,000 gallons since it started operating in September, it has the capacity to eventually produce 13,000 gallons a day or 4 million gallons a year. That would be enough to cover the fuel needs of 300 Waste Management vehicles used for garbage and recycling collection, and save about 30,000 tons of emissions per year, according to company statistics.

This is not the municipal collection giant's first foray into trash-to-energy tech. Waste Management has been distributing solar-powered trash compactors and investing in various projects geared at converting waste in usable energy in several different forms.