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Then there's regulation. Modern Corp., which runs one of New York State's largest solid-waste management facilities north of Buffalo and receives a million tons of trash a year, was already required by law to deal with its landfill odors when in 1996 it started harnessing energy from burning methane off the landfill to generate electricity. "You have this investment to begin with," says COO Gary Smith. "We wanted a way to capitalize." Today Modern provides the region with 12 megawatts, enough to power about 20,000 homes, and plans to expand to a 35-megawatt facility. In the meantime, Modern has found a market for the plant's by-products. Since 2002 it has channeled the heat produced through insulated pipes toward greenhouses where tomatoes are grown commercially on 42 acres.
Dumping has also been valuable for Tennessee's Bouldin Corp. In 2003 the firm began taking Warren County garbage and converting it to what Bouldin calls "fluff." That's household trash ground up, with the metals removed, and heated so it's inert. Fluff is used as a peat substitute. Bouldin's new landfill project is expected to swing to profitability after it launches its first durable products next year: landscape timber and building blocks made from trash. "A few years down the line, we'll wonder why we ever put this stuff in the ground," says marketing manager Terry Jones.
Some of the push to reuse is more cultural than economic. Hawaii's Pacific Biodiesel opened for business in 1996 with the explicit goal of helping the environment. That company collects used restaurant cooking oil--the stuff used to fry French fries and doughnuts--and converts it to diesel fuel. It's a well-known technology, championed by the likes of country singer Willie Nelson, but it hadn't been cost competitive until recently. Pacific Biodiesel sells a gallon of its French-fry fuel for $2.84 per gal. to $2.91 per gal.--which was about 60¢ cheaper than a gallon of regular diesel in Hawaii last month. The company now produces about 4 million gal. annually.
Using castoffs can have hidden costs. When you take someone else's junk, it's hard to know exactly what you're getting. "The waste streams aren't always consistent--or consistently available," says Betsy Cotton, TerraCycle's CFO. Pacific Biodiesel has run out of cooking-oil suppliers and is exploring the idea of growing crops like soy or sunflower to provide oil for fuel.
TerraCycle staff members also must deal with components that differ slightly from those in the last batch--worm excrement with nitrate levels a touch lower than last month's, nozzles that don't fit properly in the boxes being shipped to stores. "There tends to be a lot of variability, so you have to be vigilant about quality control," says Cotton. The company's vice president of R&D, Bill Gillum, rolls his eyes. "Variability is a good word for it," he says. Fixing the never ending problems takes ingenuity and typically a lot of labor. But that's the trade-off that comes from working with trash. No one said it wouldn't be messy.