Cellulosic ethanol from municipal solid waste: A case study of the economic, energy, and greenhouse gas impacts in California

Mikhail Chester, Elliot Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


As cellulosic ethanol technologies advance, states could use the organic content of municipal solid waste as a transportation fuel feedstock and simultaneously reduce externalities associated with waste disposal. We examine the major processes required to support a lignocellulosic (employing enzymatic hydrolysis) municipal solid waste-to-ethanol infrastructure computing cost, energy, and greenhouse gas effects for California. The infrastructure is compared against the Business As Usual case where the state continues to import most of its ethanol needs from the Midwest. Assuming between 60% and 90% practical yields for ethanol production, California could produce between 1.0 and 1.5 billion gallons per year of ethanol from 55% of the 40 million metric tonnes of waste currently sent to landfills annually. The classification of organic wastes and ethanol plant operation represent almost the entire system cost (between $3.5 and $4.5 billion annually) while distribution has negligible cost effects and savings from avoided landfilling is small. Fossil energy consumption from Business As Usual decreases between 82 and 130 PJ largely due to foregone gasoline consumption. The net greenhouse gas impacts are ultimately dependent on how well landfills control their emissions of decomposing organics. Based on the current landfill mix in the state, the cellulosic infrastructure would experience a slight gain in greenhouse gas emissions. However, net emissions can rise if organics diversion releases carbon that would otherwise be flared and sequestered. Emissions would be avoided if landfills are not capable of effectively controlling emissions during periods of active waste decay. There is currently considerable uncertainty surrounding the recovery efficiency of landfill emissions controls. In either case, burying lignin appears to be better than burning lignin because of its decay properties, energyandcarbon content. We estimate the breakeven price for lignocellulosic ethanol between $2.90 and $3.47/gal (μ = $3.13/gal).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5183-5189
Number of pages7
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 15 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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