Posts Tagged ‘incineration

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.

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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.

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.

17
Oct
08

a brief primer on plumes

The United States may have as many as 100,00 landfills, large and small. A significant proportion of them doesn’t have a liner.

A plume visualized by cross-cut

A plume visualized by cross-cut

Contaminants from landfill leach into groundwater in unsavory plumes containing heavy metals, chlorinated compounds, and hospital germs, to mention just a few of the ingredients. Take Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, which is built in a tidal swamp. The tides wash into its bed unhampered and wash out leachate, an estimated 3 million liters of it every day (which is almost 800,000 gallons). Under certain conditions, some of the contaminants from landfill may be cleaned up by naturally occurring processes, as a study at the Norman, Oklahoma, landfill has shown. but not nearly all of them. Moreover, it takes time.

In addition to leachate, landfills release methane, which is created when organics decompose when there is no oxygen and which contributes heavily to global warming. In fact, landfill methane is thought to account for about 5% of the total annual increase in “radiative force” that lies behind the greenhouse effect.  In other words, the adverse effects of landfill are both local and global. Back to Fresh Kills for a moment: according to a 1998 estimate, it releases 2,650 tons of methane a day. Perhaps that number is reduced somewhat since dumping stopped (in 2001), but it can’t be by much. After all, the garbage is still there quietly percolating under the skin of dirt that covers it up.

How long it takes for a dump to stop being a source of pollution is not yet known. Under normal conditions, most organic materials will decompose to clays and other natural substances in about 30 years. But in landfills, conditions are not normal. The stuff is packed in so tight that not enough air and water gets to it for the decomposition to proceed apace, in part because these huge piles we build cocoon much of the trash inside them, in part because sanitary engineers try to halt the decomposition process to prevent leaks.

On the whole, then,  there’s not enough air and water to speed along biodegration, too much air and water to prevent contamination and outgassing.

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

The serious environmental impact of landfilling our waste was not fully recognized until the 1970s, when the EPA began to insist on an engineering standard to contain leachate and methane, at least to some extent. All the same, the EPA recognizes that no liner is equal to the environmental stresses to which it will likely be subjected over its lifetime. Sooner or later, that leachate plume will emerge. And no methane collection system comes close to capturing all the gas generated in our trash heaps.

In the decades after the EPA established regulations, many of the older unlined, unengineered dumps were closed. In some cases, remediation systems were subsequently put in place. Most dumps, however, were simply taken out of operation and covered up. I’m sure it’s a good thing to stop adding to the problem, but closing a landfill to new arrivals doesn’t in any way mean that current occupants are no longer leaving. “Closed” really isn’t quite the word for a landfill at which the garbage trucks have stopped coming. Neither is “inactive.”

A few of the very worst landfills have been cleaned up, such as the infamous Love Canal dump in Niagara Falls. Much depends, it seems, on local activists. In other cases, cleanup is really unimaginable. Think of Fresh Kills again, which contains 67,000,000 cubic meters of compacted trash in four mountains spreading over 12 hectares of land (or 2,366,082,670 cubic feet spread out over 2200 acres). Perhaps we can expect improved containment systems in the future, but cleanup is hardly in the cards for a country that has squandered much of its wealth in the pursuit of ever greater riches.

Why exactly do we have landfills if they are so bad? Why are new landfills still being made?

It’s not that there is no alternative. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, all non-recyclable, non-hazardous waste is burned. In 40 years of heavy reliance on incineration, there have been no environmental disasters. From what I can understand, incinerators don’t scrub every last pollutant out of the exhaust gases, but their overall environmental impact is considerably less severe than the cumulative effect of landfill when considered over the entire life of the garbage.

From all my reading on the subject, I can distill only two reasons why landfilling is still standard practice in this country, despite severe environmental consequences:

> Space is still cheap, and landfills are relatively simple to build, requiring modest upfront capital investment, even now that more engineering is required.

> The environmental movement has organized very aggressively against incineration. In Fat of the Land, Ben Miller explains that environmental organizations feared that incineration would stand in the way of recycling. They scared people half to death with the notion of toxic ashes left over after combustion, and all over the country they turned out crowds to protest very effectively. Too bad if it was under false pretenses. Incinerator ash doesn’t contain any toxins that aren’t to be found in the dump. Burning doesn’t create toxins, although of course it does get rid of biohazards. Ash is significantly more stable than household garbage.

Northwest Incinerator

Northwest Incinerator

Of course this is not to say that every incinerator necessarily runs as it’s meant to. The Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which has devoured some of my own trash, seems to have been in violation of safety standards much of the time.

If Miller’s supposition is true, it’s a sad chapter in the history of the environmental movement. Here we are, 30 years later, with a handfull of incinerators, 100,000 leaky landfills, and 100,000 plumes, large and small. , a mere handfull of incinerators (a few of them them–I will say this–perpetually in violation of safety standards, such as the Northwest incinerator in Chicago), and no recycling yet in lots of places.

Fortunately, new developments are underfoot. With the rising price of oil, the larger landfills have started turning captured methane into usable fuel. There are experiments with bioreactor landfill, in which the trash is treated to decompose faster and release more methane (for fuel) under more controlled circumstances. A new generation of incinerators is being built, which would burn garbage at higher temperatures, posing even less environmental risk. I’ve heard they can mine old landfills for fuel, which would mean that some of those 100,000 could perhaps finally disappear.

More on Fresh Kills:

love letters and  cabbage leaves

landscape inspirations

More about trash in Chicago:

connecting the dots

12
May
08

Connecting the Dots

I lived in Chicago from 1986 to 1995. At that time, four-fifths or more of Chicago’s household waste was being stored in Lake Calumet, on the far southeast side, and the remainder went up in smoke via the ovens of the Northwest Incinerator on the west side. I don’t know how the booty was divided between landfill and incinerator, so I just made a pilgrimage to both places to acknowledge the relics of my earlier days.

Lake Calumet has been referred to as “one of the greatest ecological disasters in the history of North America.” About half the total area of the original wetlands that connected the Calumet River to Lake Michigan has been filled in, much of it under conditions that didn’t even meet the rather lax waste management standards of the 1950s. The list of contaminants is long and frightful, while the list of endangered and threatened species gets shorter as time goes by.

Abandoned industrial hulkBesides my garbage and the household leftovers of fellow Chicagoans, vast amounts of steel slag from the local mills and other industrial and chemical waste contribute to the 87 acres of toxic devastation. The characteristic pipe-studded garbage mounds go on and on, the length of almost 30 long city blocks north to south, from 103rd to 130th street, more or less, here and there relieved by ponds, elbowing right up to various residential neighborhoods. The hulking, rusted-out industrial behemoths of once-flourishing heavy industry sit abandoned along the edges, loose metal pieces creaking in the breeze, a monument to heedless rapacity.

Almost as wide west to east, the trash stretches from the Dan Ryan expressway pretty much to the border with Indiana. In places, the wetlands have been restored to a semblance of their natural state. Most days, men can be seen fishing to supplement their dinner.

Northwest IncineratorThe Northwest Incinerator is also within city limits, on a small industrial island in a residential ocean. I made my way there, at 740 N. Kilbourn, with an idea that it is no longer operational, following serious environmental violations in the 1990s and protracted community organizing to have it shut down. But the first thing I notice upon my approach is an unusually large concentration of blue garbage trucks that gradually coalesces into a single stream disappearing steadily into the gates of hell, in the shadow of the incinerator’s towering chimneys. The sickly smell of ripe garbage hangs over the scene, leaving no doubt about the nature of the business conducted here. The incinerator once supplied steam directly to the neighboring Brach’s candy factory, which does appear to be gone. I try to imagine the mixed aroma of garbage and cheap chocolate that once held sway, wondering whether the air would have caused tooth decay at the same time it damaged the lungs and brains.

Not that I was aware of all this when my garbage wound its stealthy way to these two places. What surprises me now is how extremely close I came to all the bits and pieces, without ever actually grasping the pattern now so plainly apparent. I taught at Chicago State University for a few years and participated in a summer science program, probably in 1993, which included a segment on environmental science and environmental justice. I knew about the environmental justice movement and that it received an important impulse in the late 80s and early 90s from the communities organizing on Chicago’s southeast side that suffered most from the local environmental insults and high cancer rates. I met Hazel Johnson, who’s been called the mother of the local environmental justice movement. I even went along on a field trip to visit the Calumet landfill. But in all of this, I never actually connected the dots between my own garbage and the consequences. Somehow, it struck me then as a problem of what Chicago did with its garbage, rather than a problem of what it did with my garbage.

My garbage was picked up once a week by the local collection agency and then it vanished–from my awareness, if not from the earth. It disappeared into the collective unconscious, so to speak. I thought about trash, of course, especially when the communal dumpster filled up before I came by with my offerings. But it was a separate issue that lived in a different compartment of my brain than the one that contained Lake Calumet, environmental racism, Hazel Johnson chaining herself to a truck in the attempt to put a stop to existing landfilling practices, or waste management practices in general. The difference, captured in a single pronoun, paints the whole world in a different color.




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