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Elizabeth Royte
where does it all go?

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Let it Burn?
Monday, Mar 15, 2004 (04:58 PM)

While researching my book on garbage, I followed trash from my house in Brooklyn to a local transfer station, and then onward to a landfill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. New York City has agreements with thirty-seven landfills in six states, but sixty percent of Manhattan's waste doesn't get buried anywhere. It's burned in the American Ref-Fuel incinerator in Newark, New Jersey. One morning I drove out to the ex-urban wilds to see what a modern "waste-to-energy" (WTE) plant looks like. (As opposed to old-fashioned incinerators, which burn waste with comparatively few environmental controls, waste-to-energy plants are technologically evolved contraptions that meet state and federal air-quality guidelines.)

Happy fantasy: an artist's interpretation of
a waste-to-energy plant.
Courtesy of MARTIN Gmbh, Munich.

Surrounded by a spaghetti bowl of grimy highways ramps, littered underpasses, and abandoned warehouses, the American Ref-Fuel plant looked sleek and modern under its skin of colored panels. The parking lot smelled a little like a pigsty, thanks to the parade of garbage trucks, but the executive offices smelled almost normal. Plant manager Jim White led me along concrete passageways and steel stairways to the Tipping Hall, where garbage arrives in packer trucks and is pushed into a concrete bunker three-hundred feet long, ninety-five feet high, and seventy feet deep. When full, the bunker holds 13,000 tons of trash, nearly the amount generated in a single day by New York City residents. (Commercial waste accounts for an additional 13,000 tons a day.)

I watched from above as a crane operator fluffed the waste ("Believe it or not, there's an art to this," White said. "We're making a unique combustion product"), then fed it into a slanting hundred-foot-long boiler filled with roller grates. We clomped downstairs to its base. When I leaned toward a small glass window to see what a 3000-degree trash fire looks like, White barked, "Don't touch!" The walls of the boiler are lined with water-filled tubes, and while the garbage burns and shrinks to a quarter of its original weight, it generates steam that drives two turbines to create energy. "We're producing 67 megawatts an hour right now," White said, enough to power 50,000 homes.

It sure sounds like a good idea: burn waste, get energy. "We've come a long way since the incinerators of the Seventies," White said, with pride. He described a complicated pollution-control recipe that involved scrubbers, electrostatic precipitators (to charge particles so they can be collected), flue-gas cleaning, combustion controls that minimize carbon monoxide, and injections of carbon (to absorb mercury), lime (to control sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid), and ammonia (to control nitrogen oxides).

In the control room of the plant you can see
video feed from the belly of the trash-burning beast

But if I've learned anything in my travels with garbage, it is that nothing in the world of waste is simple. Burning a mixed stream of natural and synthetic materials creates newfangled compounds that release cancer-causing dioxins and acid gases. Scrubbers and screens catch much of this stuff, but even minute quantities, once airborne, are extremely dangerous. Improved technology and higher air-quality standards have taken heavy metals - like lead, cadmium, and mercury - out of the smokestack only to concentrate them in ash, which is trucked to landfills. White told me the metals in his incinerator ash are "locked up," and therefore inert. Opponents of WTE believe this condition is temporary, and that toxins will eventually leach out, especially if ash is combined with other materials and used in construction projects (one of the so-called "beneficial uses" for ash that incinerator operators are pursuing). The potential health and environmental impacts of this re-use are unknown.

While engineers and chemists debate, one thing is certain: incineration, perhaps even more than landfilling (which comes with its own set of environment evils), competes with attempts to reduce our nation's enormous volume of waste. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, most incinerators require "put-or-pay" contracts stipulating that local governments deliver a guaranteed tonnage of material to the incinerator or pay a penalty. If you have to pay anyway, why bother to reduce, re-use, and recycle?

Incinerator proponents say that waste-to-energy can work in consort with recycling, that there's enough garbage for everyone. Anti-incinerator activists amp the fear factor - the unknown harms of invisible gases and leaching metals. In the past decade, the tide seems to be turning as community opposition and tighter federal and state regulations have made building waste-to-energy plants extremely expensive. In fact, the nation hasn't seen a new one since 1996.

Note to readers: this is Elizabeth Royte's final entry for POV's Borders. We hope you'll check out her previous entries, below, and browse through the other guest pages on Border Talk. Thanks for stopping by.

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Past Entries
03/02 Rising from the Dead
03/05 Less than Barren
03/08 New York's Strongest
03/11 Scrapping over Nickels
03/15 Let it Burn?