By CHRIS HUBBUCH
La Crosse Tribune
LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — In 2007, the global food and beverage company Mars Inc. established ambitious goals of eliminating fossil fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste from its operations.
As part of that initiative, each of its facilities was expected to quit sending waste to landfills by 2015.
For the company’s pet food factory in Tomah, that meant brainstorming ways to reduce and reuse waste. They installed bailers to collect cardboard, plastic and aluminum, as well as office paper and other recyclables.
Over just three years, the plant cut its landfill waste by more than 70 percent — from 382 tons in 2012 to just 109, the La Crosse Tribune reported.
Finally, in 2014, the plant found a way to cut landfill deliveries to zero: working with a third-party recycling company and the La Crosse County Solid Waste Department, Mars began sending that waste to Xcel Energy’s French Island power plant, where it is used as fuel to generate electricity.
Mars is one of a handful of companies that have turned to La Crosse County in the past few years to achieve their sustainability goals. MillerCoors, Phillips-Medisize, Nestle, Harley-Davidson — all have sent trash to the waste-to-energy plant in efforts to reduce their footprint and green up their images.
The practice generates revenue for the county’s award-winning solid waste department, a self-supporting enterprise. But it also generates ash that is buried in La Crosse’s landfill, where critics fear it could leach toxins into the groundwater.
Environmentalists applaud companies for attempting to eliminate waste but say waste-to-energy is not a sustainable solution.
“Simply taking their waste and sending it to another community doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist,” said Holly Bender, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s energy campaign. “It just means you’ve moved the impact to another community.”
A handful of companies — including Racine-based SC Johnson — have been pursuing environmentally friendly practices for years, but corporate interest in zero waste to landfill really took off in 2004, after Wal-Mart and GE launched major initiatives, said Tom Eggert, executive director of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.
“That kind of put sustainability on the map for the broader business community,” he said.
According to Eggert, a number of factors are driving corporate sustainability: Consumers are increasingly conscious of environmental impact when making choices; millennials tend to want to work for organizations they believe in; and sustainable practices reduce the risk of supply chain disruption, legal action or bad publicity.
But the No. 1 driver is cost.
“Becoming more efficient means you’re actually saving money,” Eggert said. “It just is frankly good for the bottom line.”
Williams said consumers expect sustainability, but for Mars the decision was largely a moral one.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “It’s our responsibility. We want to produce our product and grow our business but not in a way that harms the planet.”
Other companies that have used the French Island plant declined to comment or did not respond to questions from the Tribune.
Stephanie Barger is executive director of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, a nonprofit organization that helps businesses achieve sustainability and certifies companies that meet certain zero-waste standards.
She said the impetus for zero-waste policies often starts with image, but what keeps companies going is the savings.
“We want businesses to be successful,” Barger said. “Our mandate is to help make businesses successful and to create a new economy, to create a zero-waste economy.”
Since 1988, La Crosse County has contracted with Xcel to burn municipal waste at the French Island plant, one of only two waste-to-energy plants in the state. The plant, which burns a mixture of refuse-derived-fuel and wood chips, last year generated 82,250 megawatt hours, enough electricity to power about 9,800 homes.
Solid waste Director Hank Koch said he started getting inquiries several years ago from companies looking for ways to achieve zero landfill status. In some cases they have colored or paper-laminated plastic that can’t be recycled.
“They get down to this last little quantity — ‘Where can we take it?'” Koch said. “We’ll take it.”
Koch said the county has not closely tracked deliveries from zero-landfill companies, but he estimates that it amounted to roughly 1,000 tons last year. That’s only about 1.3 percent of the 77,500 tons delivered to Xcel, though Koch said it helped replace about half of what was lost when La Crosse and Onalaska moved to single-stream recycling. And it generated an extra $61,000 in tipping fees for the county.
While burning trash emits carbon dioxide, waste-to-energy plants actually reduce net greenhouse gasses when compared to landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because they eliminate methane gas emitted from landfills and the need to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. (The EPA doesn’t count the carbon dioxide released by burning organic matter, a practice disputed by incinerator opponents.)
But a number of environmental organizations oppose waste-to-energy, citing pollution concerns and noting there are cleaner forms of renewable energy.
For every 10 pounds of waste delivered to French Island last year, about 3.5 ended up in the landfill — either as residue or ash laden with heavy metals that could potentially wind up in groundwater.
According to data from the EPA, the French Island plant released nearly 34 tons of chemicals in 2014, primarily to the landfill. That included about 22,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid, 14,000 pounds of lead, and 40 pounds of mercury.
“(It’s) a misnomer,” said Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, which promotes environmentally sound community development. “It’s an impossibility because 20 to 30 percent of their waste is going to a landfill in a more toxic form.”
Seldman said putting the waste directly into a landfill would ultimately be safer for the environment.
Elements such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic and chromium can’t be broken down and tend to stick to small particles when released through incineration, said Kris Rolfhus, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
If released into the air, they can travel 100 miles or more in the air, Rolfhus said. Most of those particles are captured by pollution control devices, but that fly ash is buried in the landfill.
While much of the material remains locked in place, Rolfhus said, the combustion process does make metals more available for exposure to percolating water than if it were stuck in plastic.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources last year granted the county permission to bury bottom and fly ash in the municipal solid waste landfill.
Marty Herrick, the DNR environmental engineer who oversees the landfill, said municipal solid waste cells are typically designed to higher standards than ash-specific landfills.
Landfills must be lined with four feet of clay — with roughly the same permeability as concrete — and a plastic liner. There are drainage lines to collect the leachate, which is pumped out and sent to the waste water treatment plant for processing.
Herrick said the solid waste department in recent years has done a good job of monitoring the landfill.
“Things go well out there,” he said. “They’re conscientious.”
Barger said companies like Mars should be applauded for their efforts to keep waste out of landfills, but the Zero Waste Business Council does not consider burning trash a sustainable alternative.
Instead of spending money on creative ways of diverting trash, Barger said they should look for ways to eliminate the waste altogether.
“You’re creating energy — who cares?” she said. “You’re still paying a trash bill. That means you’re being inefficient. Any time you’re paying a trash bill, you have an inefficient business.”
Williams said Mars Petcare is working with suppliers to make ingredient packaging more sustainable and is looking for other ways to reduce waste in the system.
“We are committed to sustainable operations,” she said. “We will continue to look for and invest in improvements. By no means are we done.”