In a few years, your flight from London to New York may be powered by trash. A new production plant—ironically located in a former oil refinery outside of London—will be cranking out a renewable fuel made from waste that otherwise would end up in the city’s landfill. British Airways is going to buy over $500 million of the garbage fuel to help fly its planes with a lower carbon footprint.
Because the fuel is made out of trash, it will actually be as cheap for the airline to buy as regular jet fuel.
"The city is already paying the landfill—and since we’re replacing the landfill, the city will actually pay us to take the trash," explains Robert Do, CEO of Solena Fuels, the company making the fuel. "And the good news about working with waste is the infrastructure is already there. You’ve got trucks picking up the trash and sorting and delivering. We can take advantage of that."
Having a free supply gives Solena a big advantage over those currently working on new bio-based alternative fuels. "Our production cost is significantly lower than if we had to go out and buy grain and cultivate crops. And we’re not using hundreds of thousands of acres which could be used for food," Do says.
The process takes a few steps. First, everything recyclable is sorted out of the trash. "London has a very strong recycling program, so the waste all goes into a recycling center first," Do says. "Everything that can be recycled—bottles, glass, cans—will be recycled. The material that’s left over, that would normally go to a landfill, that’s the stuff they take to our plant."
Using two technologies, the trash is turned into a gas, and then the gas is converted into jet fuel. The end result works like the synthetic fuels made from coal and natural gas that airlines have been using for about a decade. Unlike biofuels like ethanol, it’s safe to use at 50,000 feet in the air.
London produces about 18 million tons of waste each year, so the company will have no shortage of supply. Initially, at least, they plan to use only about half a million tons, which will provide a tiny amount of the fuel British Airways uses—just 2 percent.
Over time, British Airways plans to keep increasing its use of the fuel. Solena eventually hopes to begin selling to other airlines. But although they say there's plenty of opportunity for expansion, especially in cities that don't currently recycle, fuel from trash will never fully supply everything the airline industry uses.
"If you use all of the waste around the world, you’d probably reach 20 percent to 25 percent of aviation fuel," Do says. "But that’s a massive amount."
British Airways has estimated that using the fuel could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 95 percent compared to conventional fuel. And that doesn't even include the emissions offset from methane, the potent gas that trash creates when it rots in landfills.
Clearly, it's a better use for trash than sitting in the dump. Still, it raises questions about the future of garbage. In cities like San Francisco that are aiming for zero waste, everything will eventually go through some form of recycling, composting, or reuse. As cities get smarter about how to eliminate trash, will this source of fuel disappear?