Turning Trash Into Electricity

Trash from this John Deere facility in Fargo, ND, gets recycled into fuel that provides electricity for thousands of homes.

Imagine a world where your trash is no longer sent to a landfill but instead it’s converted into energy. Sound like science fiction? Today, this concept is a reality for John Deere Electronic Solutions in Fargo, N.D. None of the trash from their primary electronics manufacturing facility is sent to its local landfill. Instead, all of its waste is collected and processed to create refuse-derived fuel (RDF). A power plant then burns this fuel to generate electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It creates enough energy to power 25,000 homes per year.


JDES Fargo consists of four main buildings. Presently, only one of them is able to send its trash for RDF processing. However, JDES has plans to try and expand this option to include more of its buildings in the future.

“We initiated this project in response to John Deere’s Eco-Efficiency Goals. Had it not been for the goals and John Deere’s commitment to environmental improvement, it’s unlikely we’d have pursued it. We would have sought conventional recycling services locally which are good but at the same time, limited our recycling potential,” Chris Schmaltz, John Deere environmental representative said.


In 2013, as part of the John Deere Eco-Efficiency Goals, JDES-Fargo set a new target to recycle at least 75% of its waste by 2018. Prior to that goal JDES-Fargo recycled 45% of its waste. Like many offices, its effort involved having one set of collection bins for trash and one set designated for recyclables such as aluminum cans, paper, and plastic bottles. All of these bins combined, took up valuable space.

“The idea to even attempt refuse-to-energy recycling was due in large part to an inability to find suitable plastic recycling options,” said Schmaltz. “Our local recycler only accepted certain plastic types for recycling which left us with large volumes being landfilled. We knew in order to achieve 75%, we had to find a home for our plastics. That’s when we broadened our search beyond Fargo and eventually found the GRE facility.”

To help reach its 75% recycling objective, the JDES-Fargo management team and its employees, completely changed how they thought about waste management. Now, JDES-Fargo ships its waste to a refuse-to-energy facility in Elk River, Minn., operated by Great River Energy (GRE). Since making the switch in April, 2016, JDES-Fargo has prevented more than 51 tons of garbage from going into the Fargo landfill in the program’s first eight months.

Share Trash_Container
Chris Schmaltz, John Deere environmental representative at JDES-Fargo, stands alongside the container used to ship the trash to the Elk River facility.

“The change to this type of recycling was well received,” Schmaltz said. “Recycling is important to many of our employees and it was discouraging to not recycle the various items the local recycler wasn’t able to market or accept. This alternative made recycling extremely easy and effectively turned our trash into a viable, useful product.”


Despite Elk River being located nearly 200 miles from Fargo, John Deere is making it work. One way it has done this is by making sure it concentrates all of the waste possible into its shipping container.

To make certain, John Deere purchased a Sani-Tech Systems High-Density Stationary Compactor. The new compactor was a smashing success and more than doubled the amount of trash that could be squeezed into the 40-cubic-yard container that’s shipped to Elk River. More trash per shipment equated to fewer shipments and lower costs for JDES-Fargo.

Another big improvement for JDES-Fargo is that every trash container on site now doubles as a recycling container. Because of this, waste-collecting bins were removed from the facility and that freed up more space.

“Several pallet-spots were freed up in our facility by not having to store recyclable materials awaiting pickup by the local recycler,” Schmaltz said. “We were also able to remove several recycling collection containers from the office areas which improved aesthetics.”


The Elk River power plant was converted from burning coal to burning RDF in the mid-1980s. “Since 1989 the Elk River Resource Recovery Project has converted more than 10 million tons of waste into renewable electricity while reducing landfill requirements by over 90%,” said Tim Steinbeck, Director, Resource Recovery. “Great River Energy’s Elk River Energy Recovery Station provides communities and businesses with an effective waste management resource. All of the plant’s air emissions go through an air pollution control system to minimize and capture pollutants. Air emissions are monitored on a continuous basis,” said Steinbeck.

GRE is a not-for-profit wholesale electric cooperative. “We are owned by our 28 member distribution cooperatives, and those cooperatives are owned by the customers they serve. This structure allows us to work together to accomplish our mission: to provide reliable energy at affordable rates in harmony with a sustainable environment,” Steinbeck said.

“It’s the ultimate in convenience when it comes to recycling. We no longer need to seek out the various collection containers in order to participate in the recycling program,” Schmaltz said.

It’s the ultimate in convenience when it comes to recycling. We no longer need to seek out the various collection containers in order to participate in the recycling program”

—Chris Schmaltz

From Trash to Ash

A modern waste combustor efficiently burns waste with proper air to fuel ratios and at temperatures to avoid much of the pollutants that can occur with uncontrolled burning. “We also utilize state-of-the-art air-quality control systems which capture emissions and small dust particles. All of the smoke from the combustor is cleaned before leaving the stack,” Steinbeck explained. “Waste typically contains about 25% moisture. Although water is evaporated during combustion, it cools and becomes a visible white water vapor when it is released to the cold air.”

Once the fuel is combusted by the power plant all that’s left is an ash byproduct. Steinbeck said the combustion process burns the carbon that’s present in the waste but there are many elements in waste that are not combustible [metals, ceramics, and salts]. Non-combustible materials [ash] are collected in two forms 1) bottom ash which are larger pieces and melted slag and 2) flyash, which are the smaller particles [dust] and the products of the acid gas scrubber reactions.

“By weight, these byproducts are about 25% of the incoming waste, but once combusted it amounts to only 8 to 10% of the volume that the waste would have required if it was all landfilled,” Steinbeck said.

Regulations in Minnesota require that the two materials be combined and landfilled in an engineered monofill (a landfill for only one type of waste product), therefore, no repurposed uses are currently allowed. “Great River Energy removes most of the metal during the processing of the RDF. However, small quantities of metals remain in the ash and Great River Energy is looking at additional ways to recover this metal from the ash,” said Steinbeck.



Turning Trash Into Electricity


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