Last summer, Don Engler of Schuff Steel took a proposal to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community for a machine that reduces the volume of garbage by 90 percent. The process, "destructive distillation," can transform even medical waste and discarded tires into a sterile charcoal and a volatile gas that can be used to turn a gas turbine and generate electricity.

Though the tribe had seen a prototype in action and had requested the proposal, that was the last Engler heard from it. Landfills, after all, are still the cheapest way to dispose of solid waste. And even though the community's Tri-City Landfill sent tons of garbage down the Salt River during last month's floods, the community is going ahead instead with a second landfill.

Phoenix-based Schuff Steel has been pitching destructive distillation for nearly two years. PAR, Inc., the California company that owns the patent, has been unsuccessfully flogging the technology for 30 years. And though it has gotten glowing reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, no one wants to give it a try.

The one time a major city did try a similar technology, it almost worked. But "almost" is hard to justify when it involves millions of dollars.

Destructive distillation falls under a larger umbrella of technology that is alternately called "gasification," "pyrolysis" or "waste to energy." In it, garbage is fed through a shredder and a dryer, then packed into a stainless-steel retort, or rotating oven, and heated to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Because there is no oxygen in the chamber, the garbage cannot burn, and instead breaks down into carbon and a volatile gas that is mostly methane. Heavy metals that aren't destroyed bind to the carbon--a charcoallike substance called char--so as to be rendered inert. There are no perceptible PCBs or dioxins or other toxins released from the process. And the volume of the garbage load is reduced by as much as 90 percent. A small portion of the gas is rerouted to fuel the boiler that heats the oven, and the rest piped to a turbine to generate electricity.

Essentially, the process speeds up the natural decomposition that would take place in a landfill. And unlike natural decomposition, the gas produced by destructive distillation does not escape into the atmosphere.

"If people are worried about the greenhouse effect, methane is far worse than CO2 in global heating. It's 30 times more effective per molecule," says John Toman, chairman and president of PAR Inc., which holds the patent to the destructive distillator. Garbage dumps are full of methane, as was recently demonstrated at Tri-City Landfill during the flood. Every time the water ate through to a pocket of gas, it produced a stunning explosion for TV news cameras.

In 1991, Schuff Steel took Bill Jolly, director of economic development for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, to see the prototype machine that PAR ran in Upland, California. A year later, the tribe asked Schuff for a formal proposal for a 1,000-ton-a-day destructive distillation facility at the Tri-City Landfill. The price tag: $110 million.

Schuff also offered a lesser pilot program as a test.
"We'll put a 50-tonner on their land, charge tipping fees so it pays for itself, then we'll run some tests, and everyone will be happy," says Engler, a vice president at Schuff Steel. He's still waiting for a response, even in the aftermath of the recent debacles, fire and flood at Tri-City.

Jolly said in an interview that the tribe was looking at several alternatives--though he wouldn't say which. It has since been reported that the tribe intends to open a second landfill site.

As for destructive distillation, he says, "I don't know if it's going to be economically feasible." Tribal chairman Frank Merli could not be reached in two weeks of telephone calls to his office.

"They're just not motivated," Engler says. Given the cost differences and the fact that reservations are not subject to state regulations, they aren't likely to be.

Schuff is also proposing facilities in Mexico City and San Juan, Puerto Rico, hoping that some municipality will take the first step.

"We need to build a facility someplace and prove to the government that it really works," says Engler's boss, Dave Schuff. "Then it would be a slam-dunk decision. Somewhere in the government, there's funds for research and design. There's a tire problem over here on Buckeye--all that energy sitting there. And garbage, and oil."
It's frustrating trying to sell a new concept, but this one is not really new. The ancient Egyptians used it to make charcoal. Western ranchers used to heat cow and horse dung in small ovens called batch converters to make methane for cooking and heating and lighting their homes.

PAR Inc. manufactured batch converters until the 1950s, when propane tanks and rural electrification rendered them obsolete. PAR turned its attention to garbage, figured out a way to continuously feed fuel into the retort without letting in oxygen, and then patented the results in 1963.

But PAR's marketing efforts were disastrous. The company sold units to lumber companies to make charcoal. It snagged a contract in the 1960s to dispose of hazardous wastes at a naval base in California, but after two years, the Navy sought bids and PAR was undercut by a landfill operator.

In the early 1980s, PAR scored a U.S. Department of Energy grant to build a 50-ton-a-day prototype at a paper plant in New Jersey. The test reports were enthusiastic, but still the company couldn't sell it. Until 1991, it ran the prototype at a test facility in Upland, California. PAR would drag municipal leaders in from all over the country, fire up the machine, load garbage in one end and show how little came out the other end. The viewers were always impressed--but decided to wait until someone else acted first.

"That's the way this business is," says Roger Hoffman at Schuff Steel. "The majority in this country didn't even know about recycling until recently."
The main obstacle has always been cost. Engler estimates that a 1,000-ton-a-day converter would require a tipping fee of $50 to $55 per ton of garbage. Currently, Phoenix-area municipalities can dump at Tri-City for $12 a ton, $22 to $26 at the Phoenix City landfills (which are both being shut down), and $15 at the Maricopa County landfills. The only way to make ends meet would be to contract to dispose of toxic wastes, medical wastes, tires, and to sell electricity.

And similar technologies have failed when incorporated on a large scale. Baltimore, Maryland, contracted with Monsanto in the 1970s to build a 1,000-ton-a-day pyrolysis plant similar to PAR's. Monsanto's machine was not airtight, however, and garbage would ignite inside. Finally, in 1981, the city gave up and closed it down. But when asked if the technology should be pursued, Ed May, director of public works in Baltimore, answers with an emphatic, "Yes! When it ran as it was supposed to, you could really get rid of some garbage."

PAR asserts that its converter doesn't fail, but the company can't overcome distrust on the part of potential customers. "From what we have seen of this concept, we are skeptical," says Ron Jensen, Phoenix public works director. "But you don't want to say no, either."

Lou Schmitt, Jensen's counterpart at the county level, is more interested and says that the county is looking into gasification projects. "If we can get an 80 percent reduction in landfill, we can make a ten-year landfill last 40 years."

But even John Toman, president of PAR, has to concede, "We will never be cheaper than landfills as long as landfills are allowed.