Driving by the sprawling Lafarge Corp. cement plant on Iowa 22 near Buffalo, one might guess the place burns a lot of coal in its manufacturing process, and it does.

But fully 30 percent of the plant’s energy needs come from garbage. That's right, trash that otherwise would be landfilled, such as plastic bags, the peel-off backing of various products and used oil filters. By year’s end, plant manager Joe Pennings hopes the alternate fuel ratio is 40 percent, and his goal is to reach 50 percent by the end of 2014.

The system that allows the company to burn these items is a $6 million investment that was completed in 2009 as part of the company’s global mission of sustainability.

For these efforts, Lafarge, represented by Pennings, received one of six Eddy Awards presented Friday night by River Action Inc., Davenport, at Modern Woodmen Park.

For 14 years, the awards have acknowledged those who have done outstanding river work and acted as an eddy, "going against the current," to accomplish excellence along the Mississippi River. Lafarge’s award was in the category of stewardship.

"Using local industrial byproducts as fuels is positive for the environment, for the community, for their (Lafarge’s) suppliers, and is both innovative and sustainable while serving as a model for other plants," River Action executive director Kathy Wine said in making the presentation at the Davenport baseball park that is surrounded by Mississippi River floodwater this weekend.

Waste/fuel comes to Lafarge from 30 different suppliers in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana, diverting 49,934 tons of garbage that otherwise would have gone to landfills. And it truly is garbage; that is, the materials are products that cannot be recycled such as tape and various plastics, Pennings said in a tour of the plant before the awards presentation.

Among the Quad-City area companies sending waste to Lafarge are West Liberty Foods, Alcoa and Kraft Davenport. In so doing, those companies reduce their landfill costs, landfill life is extended and natural resources are conserved because less raw material (coal) is required. In addition, carbon emissions are reduced because burning waste does not produce as much carbon emissions as coal, Pennings said.

The plant recently hosted a visit by a Lafarge executive from France who "hopes to learn our process and procedures in an effort to support other plants in their efforts to increase alternative fuel consumption in other parts of the world," Pennings said.

Going to an alternate fuel saves money, but "it has to be something you really want to do," he said. There is a large up-front investment, and there is labor involved in handling the materials.

Lafarge is building an $800,000 addition to its storage capacity that will allow the various waste streams to be separated and then blended  for optimal use in the fuel processing system.

"We have found some waste fuels are very fluffy and the system cannot process them at an adequate rate," Pennings said. "Other fuel streams may be too sticky to process."

By getting the mix just right, the system works more efficiently.

During a tour of the alternate fuel system area, chopped-up waste churned out of an auger, dropped onto a conveyor belt and headed for the processing area. A few things were recognizable, such as the blue cap of a milk jug, but it was mostly just ground-up trash. Also known as fuel.