Christina Stella / Harvest Public Media
While most of a turbine can be recycled or found a new life at another wind farm, scientists estimate that the United States will have more than 720,000 tonnes of blade material available over the next 20 years, a number that does not include recent, higher versions with higher capacity.
There are not many alternatives for recycling or garbage leaves, and what alternatives are expensive, partly because the US wind industry is so young. It's a waste problem that runs counter to what the industry is holding out to be: a perfect solution for environmentalists who want to fight climate change, an attractive investment for companies like Budweiser and Hormel Foods, and a job creator across the Midwest and Great Plains.
At the end of a long dirt road on southwest Nebraska prairie, the state's first wind farm, the Kimball Wind Project, is caught in the breeze. But the turbine waste area looks more like a sci-fi drama set. Rob Van Vleet climbed atop a 127-foot turbine blade, and went the length like a plank.
"These towers may support up to 150,000 pounds, 250 feet in the air," Van Vleet said. "The racks are one and a half inches thick steel … so they are very strong."
Ninety percent of parts of a turbine can be recycled or sold, according to Van Vleet, but the blades are made from a tough but flexible blend of resin and fiberglass – like what the spaceship parts are made of – another story.
"The leaves are a kind of sack because they have no value," he said.
Closed leaves are also notoriously difficult and expensive to transport. They can be between 100 and 300 feet long, and must be cut on site before being loaded onto specialized equipment – which costs money – for garbage disposal.
Once there, Van Vleet said, the size of the leaves can put landfills in a tough place.
"If you are a small tool or municipality and suddenly hundreds of magazines come to the garbage dump, you will not use up your local municipal garbage dumps for wind turbines," he said, adding that more landfill permits another layer of expenses.
Christina Stella / Harvest Public Media
Cindy Langstrom manages a turbine blade disposal project for the municipal landfill in Casper, Wyo. Although her landfill is one of the only in the state – not to mention the entire United States – with enough space to take waste from the wind farm, the magazine's durability initially said it was a financial hurdle.
"Our crushing equipment is not big enough to crush them," she said.
Langstrom's team ended up cutting the knives into three pieces and filling the two smaller sections into the third, which was cheaper than renting stronger crushers usually made for mining.
Karl Englund, researcher and technology manager for Global Fiberglass Solutions, said that turbine blade recycling is more regulated in countries that have had wind power for decades. The European Union has waste management rules, so some European companies sell older parts to customers in Asian and Latin American countries.
"[In Europe] land is at a premium and you are not allowed to throw things away," he said. "So you have to do it."
Englund believes he has found a way to recycle knives by stripping the leaves on the resin and then grinding them up to make pellets with size of chocolate. They can be used for decking, pallets and piping. His startup opened its first processing plant in downtown Texas this year, renting out another space near Des Moines, Iowa.
Van Vleet said that finding better ways to wind farms would be an uphill battle, but when it comes to confronting the problem of incinerating waste, "there's something going on, whether we like it or not, so we might as well get into it. "
He explores his own way of reducing the industry's landfill in the hope that leaf recycling can flourish in a local industry. And for the countryside looking for a financial boost, Van Vleet believes his risk of recycling can only pay off.
"Out on the prairie, it's not very much scrap," he said. "The idea is to develop the next technology, otherwise I would not.
" We lose money on every leaf we pull. "