A rising industry
America has long remained one of the most wasteful countries in the world, generating 239 million metric tons of garbage every year, about 1,600 to 1,700 pounds per person. While some view it as a threat to our environment and society, the solid waste management industry sees an opportunity.
“It’s a profitable industry,” according to Debra Reinhart, a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors for the EPA. “It’s a difficult industry but it is profitable if it’s done right.”
Two private companies, Waste Management and Republic Services, lead the solid waste management sector. Together they own about 480 landfills out of the 2,627 landfills across the United States. The two companies have seen staggering performance in the market, with the stock prices of both doubling in the past five years. Both Waste Management and Republic Services declined CNBC’s request for an interview.
“They’ve learned how to be best-in-class businesses,” said Michael E. Hoffman, a managing director at Stifel Financial. “Their publicly traded stocks outperformed the market handily between 2015 and 2019 and underpinning it is a meaningful improvement in their free cash flow conversion.” The stocks have continued to outperform.
Since its inception, landfills have made a majority of their revenue via tipping fees. These fees are charged to trucks that are dropping off their garbage based on their weight per ton.
In 2020, municipal solid waste landfills had an average tipping fee of $53.72 per ton. That translates to roughly $1.4 million a year in approximate average gross revenue for small landfills and $43.5 million a year for large landfills just from gate fees.
Tipping fees have seen steady growth over the past four decades. In 1982, the national average tipping fee sat at $8.07 per ton or about $23.00 when adjusted for inflation. That’s nearly a 133% increase in 35 years.
While tipping fees make landfills sound like a risk-free business, they are still quite an expensive investment. It can cost about $1.1 million to $1.7 million just to construct, operate and close a landfill. For this reason, private companies have replaced municipal governments to own and operate the majority of the landfills across the U.S.
“I think it’s because the trend has been to go larger and larger so the small neighborhood dump can’t exist because of the regulations and the sophistication of the design,” Reinhart said. “So we are tending to see large landfills, which do require a lot of investment upfront.”
Privatization of landfills
Private companies have also played an important role in discovering new ways beyond tipping fees to turn a profit out of garbage. Landfill mining and reclamation, a process of extracting and reprocessing materials from older landfills, is one of them.
In 2011, a private scrap metal company contracted with a nonprofit landfill in southern Maine to mine precious metals. In four years, they recovered more than 37,000 tons of metal worth $7.42 million.
But it isn’t always a success story. In 2017, the city of Denton, Texas, ended its landfill mining program before it could even start after realizing that the benefits weren’t worth its $4.56 million price tag. According to experts, economics is usually the biggest challenge to make landfill mining work.
“There’s virtually no way I can see how that makes money,” said Hoffman. “The commodity values would have to be at such higher levels than they are today for whatever it is you’re trying to get your hands on.”
Meanwhile, some experts argue that landfill mining can be profitable if done correctly by recovering more space for tipping fees.
“Many people are mining but they’re not reusing the space,” according to Sahadat Hossain, professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington. “If you do the operation right, you’re never going to be involved and it will always make you money.”
Landfill gas to energy
Modern chemistry has also allowed landfills to be mined for energy, using methane gas that is produced from decaying trash. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, landfill gas generates about 10.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year. That’s enough to power roughly 810,000 homes and heat nearly 547,000 homes each year.
“The landfill gas operations that are known as low or medium DTU which are the predominant form of capturing the gas and turning it into electricity or steam and then selling it? Those are very good returns on capital projects,” Hoffman said.
While revenue from generating energy and fuel isn’t quite impressive, landfills that participate do benefit greatly from generous subsidies. The tipping fee, combined with various mining techniques and government subsidies have altogether transformed the landfill industry into a booming business.
The solid waste management industry will only continue to expand as long as there are those who view garbage as a resource rather than waste. Because when it comes to landfills, one man’s trash is quite literally another man’s treasure.
“Waste is not a waste, but it’s a resource,” emphasized Hossain. “World has limited resources. If we don’t reuse and recycle these, we cannot talk about a circular economy. That will always be a talk in the tabletop discussion.”
Quick Charge Podcast: March 30, 2023
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Tesla is rumored to be planning a US LFP battery cell factory with CATL
Tesla is rumored to be planning a new battery factory to produce LFP cells in the US with China’s CATL, the world’s biggest battery manufacturer.
Over the last few years, CEO Elon Musk has said multiple times that Tesla plans to shift more electric cars to LFP batteries in order to overcome nickel and cobalt supply concerns.
Iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which don’t use nickel or cobalt, are traditionally cheaper and safer, but they offer less energy density, which means less efficiency and a shorter range for electric vehicles.
However, they have improved enough recently that it now makes sense to use cobalt-free batteries in lower-end and shorter-range vehicles. It also frees up the production of battery cells with other, more energy-dense chemistries to produce longer-range vehicles.
The main issue is that LFP battery cell production is currently almost entirely concentrated in China. Therefore, it creates a logistical problem for electric vehicles produced in other markets.
Furthermore, in the US, it creates a problem for automakers trying to take advantage of the new federal tax credit for electric vehicles, which requires that the batteries of electric vehicles be produced in North America in order for buyers to get the full $7,500 credit. It creates a demand to bring LFP production to North America.
Ford has recently announced a plan to partner with CATL, the world’s biggest battery cell manufacturer, to build LFP battery cells at a $3.5 billion factory in Michigan.
Now Tesla is rumored to be doing the same thing. Bloomberg first reported the rumor:
The EV maker discussed plans involving Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. with the White House in recent days, said the people, who asked not to be identified revealing private conversations. Tesla representatives sought clarity on the Inflation Reduction Act rules that the Biden administration is finalizing this week, according to some of the people. Rohan Patel, the company’s senior global director of public policy, was among those involved with the discussions, one of the people said.
The report is light on detail, but it states that Tesla is looking at a similar structure to Ford’s own deal with CATL. Texas has also been rumored to be a possible location for the new factory.
The LFP cells would enable Tesla buyers to get the full tax on the base Model 3, which is about to lose the incentive because its cells currently come from CATL’s Chinese factories.
Heart Aerospace finds a new partner to develop ES-30 electric plane battery
Swedish electric airplane maker Heart Aerospace is joining forces with BAE Systems to develop a battery system for its ES-30 electric plane.
Heart partners with BAE to develop electric plane battery
Heart Aerospace is paving the way for sustainable electric air travel to become the norm with its leading-edge zero-emission aircraft.
We first covered the company in 2021 after it made waves with its ES-19 electric airplane. The aircraft was designed to carry up to 19 people up to 250 miles (400 km), perfect for short-distance travel.
The innovation was enough to attract an investment from the third largest US air carrier, United Airlines, in July 2021. United committed to purchasing and deploying 100 ES-19 electric aircraft to its fleet as it works to erase emissions from its fleet “without relying on traditional carbon offsets.”
Air Canada, the largest airliner in Canada, invested $5 million into Heart last year in addition to ordering 30 of its newest model, the ES-30.
Heart introduced the ES-30 last year, an electric plane driven by four electric motors and a battery system. The electric aircraft will have a fully-electric zero-emission range of up to 200 km (124 miles) and 30-minute fast charge capabilities. Hybrid reserve turbogenerators allow travel of nearly 500 miles (800 km) at 25 people max.
To advance the ES-30 battery system, Heart is partnering with BAE Systems, best known for its leading defense and aerospace solutions. The battery system will be the “first of its kind” for a conventional takeoff and landing regional aircraft, operating with zero emissions and significantly reduced noise.
The collaboration will utilize BAE Systems’ over 25 years of experience electrifying heavy-duty industrial vehicles. Chief operating officer at Heart Aerospace, Sofia Graflund, said:
BAE Systems’ extensive experience in developing batteries for heavy-duty ground applications, and their experience in developing safety critical control systems for aerospace, make them an ideal partner in this important next step for the ES-30 and for the aviation industry.
Heart Aerospace says it already has 230 orders and another 100 options for the ES-30 electric aircraft. In addition, Heart says it has a letter of intent for another 108 planes. The ES-30 is scheduled to enter service in 2028.
Heart Aerospace is aiming to double the all-electric range of its aircraft by the late 2030s with close to 250 miles (400km) range. In addition to offering zero emissions, electric airplanes feature lower costs (electricity compared to jet fuel) and less maintenance due to engine repair.
Although 124 miles may not seem like much, it will be perfect for regional air travel while building a base for the future of zero-emission air travel.
The 30-minute fast charge feature is perfect for turning around flights quickly in between loading passengers and luggage.
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