Recently, I toured my local recycling facility to see how it all works, and it inspired me to think about where all the REST of our trash goes. Around the Greater Boston area, (where space is a premium) almost all of the trash from around here is incinerated, sending the ash to a local landfill.
And guess what? I got to go on a tour of the local waste-to-energy trash incinerator in Saugus, MA.
I have to say, I wasn’t really thinking I’d learn much. I mean it’s just a fire, right? The stuff burns until there’s only ash left and it’s buried. Simple, right? Well, I found there’s a bit more to it than that. And just having the opportunity to see the process in motion made a big difference. And let me tell you, that fire is friggin hot! Even through the super-thick, tiny viewing glass (which was sort of like peering through a welding mask) it felt really hot on my face. They told me they maintain the fire at about 2200-2500 degrees Fahrenheit, and you could really feel it through the reinforced walls and everything.
Here’s a short animation from their website that explains how it all works. This makes much more sense than any long-winded descriptions I could offer. It’s a great little video, showing how the trash gets into the burning room itself, how the metals are sorted out, and how the gas is “scrubbed” afterward to meet air quality regulations.
Additionally, they have an ash landfill on site, so they don’t have to take the waste all that far. They told us that they reduce the size of the incoming trash by 90% which is nothing to sneeze at. Another upside was that the power generated (in the form of steam that runs turbines, I think) powers the whole plant, with plenty of energy leftover that they sell to the local electricity company.
Maybe one of the reasons I originally didn’t feel it was necessary to see this facility along with the recycling plant was the lack of the feel-good component. There’s nothing good that comes from this. It doesn’t get sent somewhere else so we can use it again. We’re left with a pile of super-toxic ash that needs disposed of in a landfill that (we hope) won’t contaminate the groundwater, affect local wildlife, or harm people around it.
But I’m really glad I went. Just seeing the sheer volume of garbage in person is an image that will haunt me for quite a long time.
For our waste, this is the end of the line. There’s nothing else, nowhere else for this to go. They process 1500 tons of trash per day, and that’s only off the top of the mountain waiting to be incinerated, all while a steady flow of trash trucks shows up to dump more constantly. Their little animation video shows that giant “claw thing” lowering all the way down to the floor to grab a load of garbage, but in reality, it only had to scoop from the top of the pile near the ceiling, 200 feet above the ground.
What really bugged me the most was to see so much stuff that had so much potential. Lots of recyclables, pieces of furniture that could have been reused or refurbished, so much stuff that could have gone around again, that could have served another purpose. And once it’s ash, it’s ash. There’s no more reusability, no more use that can come from it. It is a true last resort for disposal.
Ok, enough of the depressing stuff. I asked our tour guide (who also works there) for a list of his top 5 things he should never have to see coming into this facility and being fed into the incineration rooms. I was very surprised to hear they really don’t have a problem with hazardous materials, electronics, or large appliances coming through. He said those would definitely be on the lets-never-see-them list, but he didn’t feel it was necessary to list them because they weren’t really a problem.
So what were the items they see a lot of but shouldn’t have to deal with? They were all completely obvious things, but it was still staggering to see so much of those very items going through the system, just in the short time I was there.
- Food scraps: Food scraps, because they’re over 90% water don’t burn very well and sap energy from the fire. They’re way better off being composted. It’s ridiculous to dispose of food waste any other way. (I keep meaning to write a post on how easy composting is, but sometimes I don’t even know what to say. Put food scraps in a pile outside and they’ll turn into dirt. That’s basically it.)
- Metals and Glass: Metals and glass don’t burn. With metals, it takes a lot of energy to melt them, and I mean a lot, and it slows their system down just to send the stuff to a recycler anyway. Metal and glass both have a very high resale value and can easily be remade into other useful things. There is absolutely no reason to dispose of them through incineration.
- Paper/cardboard and recyclable plastics: Recycling is a much better use for stuff like this because it has reuse/recycle value. Again, why burn and waste what someone else will pay money for so they can make it into something else? Yes, paper products burn well, but then they can’t be used a second time around or more.
So basically, it doesn’t make sense to burn things that don’t burn, it doesn’t make sense to burn things which can be used again and again, and it doesn’t make sense to burn food scraps that can be composted to make valuable topsoil. The longer we can keep the same things going around, the better. Duh.
So how big of a problem are those things? They estimated about 40-70% of their incoming trash was either recyclable or food waste. Yeah, you read that right. 40-70% of what they process shouldn’t even be there in the first place. I’d say that’s a pretty good starting point for improving things: getting every town to offer a recycling program, and getting people to put their recyclables in the right place.
I asked if people really did recycle all of that stuff if there wouldn’t be a need for their plant anymore, and if anyone would have to worry about that. Nobody at the plant hesitated with their solid “no.” There’s always more trash out there. They run their facility 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can’t keep up with the incoming trash. And they only have contracts with 14 surrounding communities. There’s more than enough to go around, and not enough time in the day to process it all.
I couldn’t help but think about the recycling facility down the road that is crying for more material to sort, sell, and recycle, all while valuable materials are burned to ash and buried in a landfill (around which a wildlife refuge was designated).
If nothing more, it’s made me think harder about what exactly I throw away. Do I really not have any other use for that? Am I sure I need to throw that away? Do I really need to buy this? Can I buy another option with less packaging? Now that I know where it all goes and saw it firsthand, I don’t want to contribute to that anymore.
Anyone have any other thoughts? Have you given any thought to reducing your trash? What changes have you made (or plan on making) to reduce your trash? How can we get more people to recycle??