Over the past eight years – beginning with a coal ash spill in Kingston, TN, in 2008 – there have been numerous incidents involving coal ash that made its way into the environment.
Part of the reason is that many facilities have no use for coal ash, so they must store it indefinitely. This creates problems caused by long-term storage of coal ash, hence the aforementioned incidents and the resulting furor over environmental damage.
A piece of the solution involves finding alternative uses for coal ash that don’t involve long-term storage. That typically means finding uses for coal ash in industry, particularly in materials.
Fortunately, there have been advances in coal ash appropriation that have positioned the material as a new, valuable resource.
Exploring “Beneficial Re-use”
The EPA and industry professionals call recycling coal ash “beneficial re-use.” In other words, coal ash can be recycled for other useful purposes that prevent mishaps and environmental concerns.
Approximately 40% of all coal ash is used for beneficial re-use. That percentage has increased over the years, but we still have progress to make before a majority of ash is utilized in this way.
The recycling angle has been the center of intense debate between the EPA, environmentalists, and industry. The EPA has wanted to classify coal ash as hazardous waste under pressure from environmentalists, but industry groups have argued that doing so would hamper the ability to recycle coal ash. Environmental groups believe that products made from coal ash would also be hazardous, but on that point, the EPA disagrees.
Currently, the two main products produced by beneficial re-use are concrete and wallboard. Fly ash is incorporated into both types of product, which not only deals with waste issues but also provides a revenue stream for the plant. In 2005, approximately 15% of all concrete produced in the U.S. was made with fly ash (15 million tons versus 95 million total tons produced). That number has gone up significantly over the past decade, so the percentage is likely higher than 15% by this point. And the use of ash in wallboards has similarly increased, especially as an alternative to wallboards made overseas that are of lesser quality.
Promoting Coal Ash Reuse
There is little doubt that future uses for coal ash will be discovered. It behooves plant owners to look into coal ash recycling and prepare themselves for taking advantage of this avenue, including investing in fly ash handling equipment to handle coal ash.
The EPA has made things easier with its 2014 study that supported using coal fly ash in wallboard and concrete applications. As things stand now, producers can expect few – if any – limiting regulations on recycling coal ash, despite protests from environmental advocates who would prefer to see it all classified as hazardous waste.
That makes the prospects of investing in fly ash handling equipment better for producers who want to find a reasonable – and even profitable – way to recycle their ash and prevent costly mishaps from occurring as a result of storage.