Archive for the 'incineration' Category

03
Nov
09

any donations to the landfill?

Flying home from Seattle to San Francisco on Sunday, I was asked by a jocular flight attendant if I would like to make a donation to the landfill. Yes, indeed. I did. I had an empty aluminum can I really didn’t mean to take off the plane with me, just so I could put it with the recyclables.

sfogoats

Cute woolly goats, stuck at SFO as a badge of green

It did make me ask what exactly happens to airline trash. As always, it’s thoroughly fascinating. To start with, SFO is proudly green. (To show us how intensely green, the airport keeps—or used to keep—a flock of goats on a strip of wetland at the very edge of the complex. Poor bastards.)  More seriously, the facilities are sustainable.  There are 50,000 square feet of solar panels on Terminal 3. And the airport diverted 55% of waste collected at the terminals from the landfill and 90% of construction debris in 2008. Everything is collected in a single stream and recyclables are pulled out off-site. A food waste composting program serves the various restaurants.

I suffered a momentary thrill thinking maybe my aluminum can was not destined for landfill after all. But it’s not that simple. The in-flight debris is none of the airport’s business. The airlines or the catering businesses that serve them are in charge of all waste coming off the planes.  And it’s the US Department of Agriculture which sets the rules for its handling.

whitherthougoest

Not quite as cute as the goats

Garbage from domestic flights may be landfilled and apparently also recycled. And, it turns out that United has a recycling program from aluminum cans and plastic cups arriving in Hawaii on domestic flights as of this writing and that it is looking into extending the program to San Francisco and LA. In other words, my hapless seltzer can came along just a little too early to be rescued for another go-round through the wringer of life.

Garbage from international flights meanwhile must be a) incinerated and reduced to .3-percent of the original volume, b) sterilized in an autoclave at 270 degrees F for 45 minutes, or c) shipped back to the country of origin. The idea is to “prevent the infiltration of foreign pests and disease.”

I wonder if anybody at the USDA worries about the pests and diseases we might be exporting to the developing world.

28
Apr
09

the piles behind me

I’ve got myself into a dilemma much like Tristram Shandy’s, whose life went by much faster than he was able to record it. Only my problem is that every time I get myself up to look for my ancient garbage, I create more of it in additional places. All of which will require more research, more getting myself up to look, more creating of garbage in hitherto unsuspected places, more research, more getting up, etc., etc. Infinite regress has already reared its monstrous head even though to date I have gone to look only for the largest quantities of my own historical trash. If I tried to locate the trash I’ve left all over the world while traveling, I would be dead before I properly documented my first 10 years.

Barneveld Landfill

Barneveld Landfill

My current sojourn in the Netherlands is associated with a heap of trash that,  as of this writing, has no known destination. All I know is where it does not go—the dump operated by the enterprise that collects the garbage at my temporary address. I’m not sure the locals agree about many things, but they do agree that the country is too small to fill it up with rubbish.

I had expected to be able to participate in food and green waste composting, but no such luck. I live in a place with a special dispensation and a solid refusal to deal with separate collections. All the trash I currently create, including those perfectly innocent scraps and peels, is going into purgatory somewhere unidentified, to burn for my sins.

I don’t even want to begin to think about what might happen to discards produced when I visit my folks.

verboden1

Dumping Garbage Prohibited - Gevudo, Dordrecht

On the other hand, the considerable quantity of tissues I unwillingly used up in consequence of a cold while traveling to Heerjansdam to look for my childhood trash (see Buitenland’s Garbage, Zwijndrecht, Preserve, Times Two, Transmigration of Matter, and Pretty Picture) does have a known destination: the Dordrecht incinerator, where the visitor is summarily forbidden to dump his “dirt,” the standard term for garbage in local parlance.  The country’s only hospital waste incinerator is located here as well.

Next to the incinerator is a working landfill, where I presume the fly ash goes. It rises like Table Mountain above the surrounding flat lands, ominous and foreboding.

A little further east, there is bound to be more garbage because I found a ski slope, a cycle track, and a golf course—sure signs of waste underfoot. The ski slope is in disrepair, as Dutch people have generally evinced a preference for the Alps over tricked-out, spiffed-up garbage dumps. The ski lift is nothing but a downed clothesline in the grass, and the squares of corrugated plastic snow are sliding off the hillside as if to make up for the lack of human visitors.

In back of the golf course is a huge park, only half tended and almost completely deserted, of breath-taking beauty. Half wetland, half terra firma, hushed in the near fog, slowly awakening from long winter sleep. Despite the immediate proximity of ovens, upland waste, electricity pylons, and railway bridge, the area seems entirely removed from time except the cycles of the seasons.  This is hands down the prettiest garbage dump I have ever visited. I don’t recommend it as a tourist attraction only because too many visitors would spoil the prospect.

Merwelanden, northern end of the Biesbosch

Merwelanden, northern end of the Biesbosch

Yet again further east lies a gigantic garbage dike, following the banks of the river Beneden Merwede for what I guess is a length of approximately 2 kilometers. It runs right into the upper end of one of the national parks, the Biesbosch. Also gorgeous. Also completely unreal.

24
Apr
09

Fighting over Waste

Usually, when people fight about waste it’s a game of hot potato, where everybody tries their damndest not to be the one stuck with it when the music stops. Or perhaps it’s more like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, in which one player holds both tail and pin and all the others do what they can to avoid being the donkey’s rear end. In the U.S., where vast amounts of trash cross state lines, it’s not uncommon to see people work themselves up into scandalized outrage over the notion that their state would have to bury someone else’s garbage. The feeling is no less genuinely felt in states which are net exporters in this passing game.

The Dutch waste pile

The Dutch waste pile

But in these dark days of economic contraction, all the rules are a little different. There’s not enough trash to go around. In the Netherlands, consumers are still contributing generously to the health of the garbage industry. Commercial waste, however, is way down. This on top of successful government efforts to prevent waste, which have eaten into the waste stream in recent years.  The result is a significant overcapacity in disposal, specifically incineration. There’s a whole new game afoot, which, if anything, resembles a mad scramble over the insufficient spoils, so to speak.

The scramblers include not just the incineration giants, but the often smaller recycling companies. They are crying foul, complaining that waste that could be recycled is feeding the incinerators’ hungry maws instead. Interestingly, this is the story that U.S. environmentalists have always told about incineration: that it will tend to undermine recycling, despite the fact that it is environmentally much more responsible than incineration, though often less economically competitive. In other words, it’s real, not just a bugaboo story.

Now there are furious debates about how to adjust incentives so that salvageable materials will end up back in service and incinerator capacity will end up adjusted appropriately to the non-salvageable waste stream. It’s interesting to note that nobody suggests it would be smart to bury the trash instead.

21
Apr
09

studying stink

I recently ran into some of the scientific literature about stink studies. These are conducted in the Netherlands near garbage dumps, incinerators, and other business enterprises likely to cause environmental nuisances, especially of the olfactory kind.

I don’t know if this is the case in the U.S., but stench is considered pollution in Europe. There’s a hedonic value scale that says that “very slightly unpleasant” (H=-1) is acceptable, but “slightly unpleasant” hedonic values (H=-2)  in residential areas amount to actionable environmental degradation. That is to say, if people live in a “slightly unpleasant” stink plume, something must be done to contain the nuisance.

Obviously, no enterprise is going to spend good money remediating its general stinkiness unless there are reliable, quantitative measurements that show incontrovertibly that H=-2 has been achieved. Measurements are made in stink units and in sniff units. If I understand the literature, the organization undertaking the stink study sends something much like a focus group into the field, at the same time that project leads analyze and measure ambient air and track activities at the (potentially) offending location. The members of the focus group, known as the sniff team, sniff the air. I’m not sure if they use expert sniffers or if they are recruited on Craigslist as representatives of the general population, as is standard operating procedure for focus groups these days.

Sniffing

Sniffing

Whatever their credentials, I can’t resist picturing them, standing in the weeds like partridge hounds, chin raised, nostrils flared, brow furrowed. They inhale slowly and deeply, experiencing the air, savoring its aroma as if it were wine being judged in a contest, and then spitting it out. Bluuch. Very slightly unpleasant, full-bodied and complex, methane-forward, with suggestions of trichloroethylene, halogenated hydrocarbons, considerable complexity in the biphenyls, and a sexy note of barnyard. Units are noted on the PDA.

I imagine the sniffers are posted all around the area, and they probably raise their olfactory equipment into the air at prescribed intervals for repeated readings. Their various savorings of the air are eventually compiled. Obscure calculations are performed to transmogrify qualitative experiences into quantitative results and to correlate awarded sniff and stink units with business activities and weather conditions. The idea is to produce not just readings of the moment, but to pinpoint the source of the bluuch and to extrapolate how often bluuch might obtain during the year.If the units exceed legal limits, remedial actions must be undertaken, and then the focus group/sniff team goes to work again, to make sure hedonic values are up into approved regions. It may also occur that plans to build new housing in the plume will be scotched based on findings.

Like many things in life, the law is a two-edged sword. I quickly ran into some studies commissioned by the stinkers to prove that they produced too much stink to allow housing to be built in their vicinity. Clearly, they didn’t feel like cleaning up.

A person who was at one time employed by the province of Zuid-Holland appears to have been in the course of compiling a stink atlas of the Netherlands, gathering together an array of stink findings for various locations and branches of industry. For the most part, incinerators are found to remain within permissible hedonic limits. Landfills are a different matter. The active face is, predictably, the source of most of the offending odors, but fugitive methane from older sections is also fingered as problematic. It doesn’t just cause global warming, then; it induces anhedonic states in the bystanders.

Now I don’t believe that the  Zuid-Holland stink expert was at all concerned with agricultural stink, which I can testify, as a focus group of one, is considerably more than slightly unpleasant in the general environs where I currently reside. (Agricultural stink might be too gargantuan a project to map, but I suspect that the real reason is that farmers are too well organized to permit any government to put stink limits on their activities.) A short bikeride from my cottage to the nearby village for groceries is an obstacle course through multiple chicken dung, sheep doo, and hog manure plumes. It smells rural, Dutch people say.

Local farmers are apparently resolarizing agriculture, refusing petroleum-derived fertilizers in favor of the traditional thing. Good for them, of course. But the hedonic values are way south of the worst landfill I’ve ever smelled.

17
Apr
09

pretty picture

April 15, 2009 – Brielselaan, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Rotterdam, reportedly, is the only major city with an incinerator dead smack in the urban center. Of course, this being Rotterdam, there are other industries equally dead smack, since the city is built around a vast port that attracts all sorts of industrial activity. Still, there’s housing a long stone’s throw away from the ovens.

If you look at the plant on a nice day and from the right angle, across a swath of municipal daffodils and a little stand of poplars flaunting their brand-spanking-new leaves, it looks like a Potemkin village, a put-on job, an elaborate hoax. For all I know, it wasn’t actually operational when I was there. All the same, I am assured that some 385,000 tons of garbage are disappeared here annually. And the trash that I produced from 1968 to 1972 was done in here also, subsequently used for city heating as well as being converted to electricity.

Today the oven probably would not be sited here, but it’s got squatting rights. The first oven was built on this wharf along the Maas in 1910. A new oven was built in 1963. In 1990, the later ovens were updated and adjusted so they could handle the exhaust gases from the Maas Tunnel nearby. How cool. To be absolved not only of our plastic but of our driving!

This week, there was not a whiff of garbage to be noticed anywhere. No smoke and vapors belching out of the chimneys. No convoys of trucks driving in and out. A burnished metal facade hides the flue gas cleaning plant, which in turn hides the somewhat more utilitarian ovens. A screen at street level, endlessly and incongruously repeating photographic deep scarlet roses, is wrapped around the front like the bow on a birthday gift.  It is for sure a far cry from the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which, if you have a nose, you cannot possibly mistake for anything else but what it is.

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Even from the back, where most of the garbage arrives, by barge, it doesn’t look too bad. Perhaps they have a dedicated clean-up crew whose job it is to keep the plant spic and span at all times.

All the same, in the last review to determine whether the incinerator’s operating license should be renewed, environmental activists managed to persuade the government against the proposition. Interestingly, the argument was that energy returns  from the old ovens, which date to 1963, capture too little of the potential energy released in the incineration process to be considered environmentally responsible. So the flue gas treatment unit will stay, but a new oven will replace the current one in the near future. The cognitive dissonance, for the American visitor at least, remains.

Such an apparently pleasant, useful, and seemingly unexceptionable  incinerator raises a question: does a right-thinking garbage amateur prefer the spiffy harmlessness of the Brielselaan to the moldering, hulking, stinking menace of the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which is in violation of emission regulation on a regular basis. On the one hand, a socially beneficial technology that minimizes the self-destructive tendencies of a comfortable lifestyle. On the other hand, a public health threat, most immediately to the poor people living nearby.

The choice is inevitable. One cannot in good conscience come down against the poor people who have to breathe in the mistakes and carelessness of a poorly operated, technologically backward monster.

All the same, a good memento mori speaks a truth so wide and deep, there’s no carpe diem will come close.

13
Apr
09

Transmigration of Matter

April 8, 2009 — AVR Rijnmond, Rozenburg, the Netherlands

Snail Mountain

Snail Mountain

A road spirals up the mountain, around back and to the top, where the big trucks back up to the very edge to release a load of ash, making a lovely dust cloud as the stuff rolls down the hill. It seems a little precarious to me. Here’s another job I’m glad I do not have.

In Dutch, bottom ash is referred to as “slakken,” which I suspect is just a close relative of “slag,” the waste material produced in coal mining. But “slakken” also means “snails” in everyday Dutch, which makes for a very lively image.

The mountain, currently growing on the grounds of the AVR Rijnmond, is a little higher than usual, I’m informed, because of the economy. Less trash comes into the front door, it’s true, but the snails don’t get carried out the rear as they usually are either. Demand for bottom ash—which is used in roads, dikes and other infrastructure that requires massive amounts of more or less inert matter—is down even further than the supply of trash.

Gifts Delivered

Gifts Delivered

Despite the troublesome shortage of garbage of the moment, there’s plenty of activity at the front door. My guide refers to it as the “bordes.” It reminds me of the “bordes” that the Dutch queen stands on at Soestdijk Palace, on her birthday, to receive her loyal subjects bringing birthday presents. I doubt, however, that anything as useful as ash and energy results from that annual patriotic operation.

Unlike the loyal subjects, the trucks back up to the doors and spit out their treasures without ceremony. A cloud of dust and exhaust blows back out into the open. A thick smell of rot hangs in the air. Gigantic grabbers hanging off the ceiling inside pick up the waste and deposit it on the dissassembly line. Then it trundles into the tops of the seven ovens that perform the first step in its transmigration from useless trash to useful infrastructural filler. Another stream, almost as voluminous, comes in at the Laurenshaven docks in back, barges delivering containers of garbage from cities like Utrecht and the Hague.

The trash literally disappears into the maw of the incinerator, never to be seen again. It passes through the bowels of this gigantic beast like grass through the multiple stomachs of a cow. The process is entirely self-contained. A little peephole at the bottom shows a line of disintegrating trash bags on a long down escalator engulfed in flames. But there’s not a whiff of garbage anywhere, not the slightest inkling of heat. Only the little peephole confirms the conflagration within.

The plop, carried off on a conveyor to a steaming pile of slag outside, still contains some undigested matter–bits of broken glass, odds and ends of metal. The metals are removed for re-use, and what’s left is heaped onto the mountain top. Meanwhile, heat is transformed into electricity. Various kinds of nastiness are scrubbed out of the flue gas and eventually buried in landfill.

Maasvlakte

Maasvlakte (Garbage at Left)

My own historical trash has made this digestive trip as well, including a small portion in 1972 and then again a bigger batch from 1978 to 1983. Especially that earlier contribution may have helped to “fill” some of the construction at the mouth of the Maas. It’s not a very exact way of pinpointing the ultimate resting place of my garbage, but it’s as close as I’m going to get.

The whole question of whether the transmigration of trash to ash might be good or bad for the environment is obviated by the neighbors. AVR Rijnmond stands in the middle of miles and miles of chemical and petrochemical industry, which is responsible for a significant stream of hazardous waste (some of which arrives at the AVR for cleanup) as well as fugitive emissions. The whole question takes on a distinct air of futility in this environment. Nonetheless, some activists worry about ultra-small particles and traces of toxic substances sneaking out the chimney. I’m not in a position to judge if such worries have merit. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is room for improvement.

But what makes incineration unbeatable in my mind is that it makes plastic go away at the end of its useful life, yielding up a little burst of energy, a puff of usable ash, and a smidge—but just a smidge—of something impossible to reuse. It’s like absolution. Like getting a hall pass.

28
Nov
08

to burn or to bury

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Some time ago, I wrote about the vehement opposition of the U.S. environmental movement to garbage incineration (a brief primer on plumes), a position not shared by environmentalists anywhere else except the UK. I asked Milieudefensie, the Dutch Friends of the Earth, to offer me some thoughts on the subject, to try to determine if I had somehow missed the secret garbage underground in continental Europe. Here’s what they had to say:

“Waste management is not a subject Milieudefensie concerns itself with at the moment, because things are properly arranged in the Netherlands. Other environmental topics, such as climate change, make a more urgent claim on our attention.”

The way things are arranged in the Netherlands at the moment is to rely primarily on re-use and recycling and secondarily on incineration. Thirteen incinerators operate across the country, some in the most densely populated areas, a few others in the rural outback. Landfilling takes place only insofar as there is insufficient incinerator capacity and requires a special waiver. Hazardous wastes which are unsafe to burn are also landfilled. Germany has an even stronger emphasis on incineration, with plants all over the country, and no movement opposing them. An official noted that people oppose incinerators during the planning phases. Resistance dies down after the plants become operational.

There are concerns.  Fine particulates are released in exhaust gases and their health impacts are not very well understood. Fly ash is highly toxic and must be buried or incinerated in special rotating kiln incinerators. Toxic chemicals may escape when a plant is powered up or down. That they are so much more visible than lowly landfill, I’m sure, doesn’t increase their popularity either. It is so much easier not to think about the deleterious but invisible effects of an invisible landfill than it is to ignore a very high smokestack belching clouds, with heaven knows what in them.

Cross-cut incinerator

Cross-cut incinerator

The EPA meanwhile appears to be solidly in line with Milieudefensie in its evaluation of various disposal methods when considered in terms of their net effect on global warming. Its report Solid Waste Management and Green House Gases rank orders the different methods from least to most harmful:

> source reduction (i.e., reduced consumption or reduced use of materials in consumption)

> recycling

> composting

> incineration

> landfilling

Obviously there are more attractive options than burning trash, but conventional landfilling isn’t one of them. (Experiments with landfill are under way to make them less environmentally wasteful, so to speak.)

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

I also ran into a different evaluation of waste disposal methods, by a Dr. Jeffrey Morris, which tries to attach a monetary cost to each method, calculating operating and environmental costs and subtracting environmental benefits. Constituent prices vary by location and over time, so this model is more difficult to generalize from. However, a few specific examples from that calculation, showed incineration finishing dead last. This is not terribly surprising, since operating costs for incineration are generally high while landfilling is still cheap in many places. A landfill, no matter how carefully engineered, doesn’t come close to an incinerator in terms of capital costs.

Incineration, unfortunately, may be too expensive outside the industrialized west. While waste prevention is more attractive than any other option, the total elimination of waste is an unlikely  prospect. It follows that landfill will just have to be organized to do better–capturing methane more effectively and delivering more usable fuel. And in the meantime, the economy is in process of imposing a new frugality, which will eventually lead to less waste, if it isn’t doing so already.




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