Following the trail of your trash after it has been taken from the bin

I am a shameless garbage collector. It’s not uncommon for me to be walking my dog ​​in Dorchester on Wednesday night with the leash in one hand, the shabby plant stand or bench in the other hand in need of TLC, or in some cases slung over my shoulders.

It’s hard not to pick garbage occasionally when you look at the abundance of items on the curb every week and ask yourself: what happens to all that garbage anyway?

All household waste is incinerated in Boston. Eighty percent of this is picked up by Capital Waste and sent to the energy transfer stations in Covanta. Dorchester’s trash is part of the 110,000 tons per year from Boston sent to Lynn, where the trash is inspected before being moved from small to large trucks and transported to an incinerator in Haverhill.

I recently took a Covid controlled virtual tour of the Haverhill site courtesy of Mark Van Waldeen, Asset Manager for the Commonwealth in Covanta. When the big garbage trucks come in, they dump their load on a tipping floor that guides the garbage into a holding pit. A crane then shovels the waste into a chute that feeds it into the boiler, which burns the combustible material at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and creates steam that powers a massive turbine that generates electricity, enough to power 31,000 households a year supply.

Any vapor that exits the facility goes through several cleaning steps, including a carbon injection process that neutralizes heavy metals and a series of vacuum cleaner filter-like bags that trap extra particles or harmful substances.

A treasure chest

Meanwhile, the incombustible ash is discharged and conducted by powerful magnets that extract all metals, including multi-million dollar loose change that is purified and eventually returned (it is illegal to destroy money). Any additional metal extracted is recycled.

The leftover ash is sent to a landfill, a type of landfill dedicated to one type of waste. Covanta has invested millions in implementing an ash processing system that washes the ash and extracts even more aggregates like glass and sand. However, this has not yet been implemented at the Haverhill facility, which processes 594,000 tons of waste annually.

Brian Coughlin, superintendent of waste reduction for the Boston Department of Public Works, says the city generates approximately 250,000 tons of household waste and recycling annually. The Covanta incinerator is a good disposal option given the alternatives: landfills require a lot of space and additional transportation that costs money per mile and increases the carbon footprint. And there’s always nimbyism to deal with – which community welcomes waste disposal facilities in their backyard?

And that’s a minor problem: the number of companies that remove and dispose of waste, including the transportation operated by Capitol Waste, is very small. And there are only a few disposal options.

“There are only one or two players in the market so the offering is not very competitive,” said Coughlin. “If one day they said, ‘I can’t take your things’, we’re in big trouble.”

For this reason, the city intends to set up its own waste disposal facility within its borders. This vision requires concerted attention from policymakers and residents to become real. Such a facility would create green jobs, bring revenue to the city, and generate energy to fire buildings and charging stations, Coughlin said.

“We could have a future in which transportation, buses, schools and police vehicles could all be net carbon-free,” he noted. “We spend $ 50 million annually on waste disposal. If any of these facilities are closed, we will have to pay to move the garbage further away.

He added, “Imagine if we had the option to dispose of the waste here and generate energy instead? We could fire up all city buildings, and there could be entire neighborhoods that don’t have to pay for electricity. It could be of great benefit to the community. ”

Waste disposal costs are unlikely to decrease anytime soon. Recycling is also not a viable alternative. According to Coughlin, recycling costs more per tonne than garbage disposal. “The recycling market is terrible,” he said. “You have to pay to collect it and you have to pay the facility to dispose of it.”

The Covanta incinerator in Haverhill. Covanta picture

A question of security

Then the question arises as to how environmentally friendly waste incineration plants are. According to Casper Ohm, a UK-based environmental scientist and founder of Water-Pollution.org, they are our best option.

“When generating electricity from combustion, less CO2, SO2, NOx and mercury are released than with coal and oil,” said Ohm. “The waste in landfills is also significantly reduced, and this also minimizes the leachate and methane that result from the breakdown of landfills. Waste is also a fairly reliable source of energy; Production is usually predictable and inexpensive, while fossil fuel prices can fluctuate dramatically. “

Waste-to-energy plants are very popular around the world, although only 86 are in operation in the USA, presumably because there was always space here to dispose of waste or export it to third world countries.

“The cost of building a new facility can often exceed $ 100 million, and larger facilities will take double or triple that number to figure,” Ohm said. “In addition, the economic benefits of the investment are not immediately noticeable. Since the US has a surplus of available land, it can opt for more financially viable options like landfills. The costs associated with a landfill are far less than the costs associated with an incinerator. “

Increasingly, however, other nations have stopped disposing of our rubbish – a practice fraught with its own environmental disasters – and space here is becoming increasingly scarce. If a state like Texas, which has available land, accepts rubbish from New England, we would still have to get it there.

“There is no perfect solution to solving solid waste,” said Philip Pedros, senior process engineer at Stantec in Burlington, Massachusetts. [where] We cannot do without it. “

When you pull your trash cans to the side of the road this week, try to be more attentive to what you are doing. Could you reuse or post any of the items you throw away on a Buy Nothing Facebook page or Craigslist for free? Just because waste disposal isn’t listed on your tax bill doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a cost.

If you know exactly where our garbage is going and the financial and environmental consequences of disposing of it, you can bring Boston closer to its goal of 80 percent zero waste by 2035.

“We have a lot to do. We have to get started,” said Coughlin.

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