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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Are there Alternatives? Landfill or WTE?

Jan H. Gardner

Some citizens have expressed opposition to waste-to-energy (WTE) and have suggested that there are viable alternatives that the County should evaluate and consider. Primary among the suggestions is the evaluation and implementation of a Resource Recovery Park. A proposed Resource Recovery Park could include a wide variety of opportunities for citizens to drop off items for re-use or for recycling or for the recovery of certain resources, such as metals, that could then be recycled. It has been suggested that the private sector would be active participants and that there is money to be made. A Resource Recovery Park could also include a government, non-profit, or private sector owned and operated materials recovery facility or MRF. It has been suggested that a Resource Recovery Park combined with other aggressive efforts to recycle, recover, and re-use materials that might otherwise be disposed would reduce the waste stream to a level that would avoid the need for a WTE facility and/or a new landfill.

Resource Recovery Parks or Eco-Parks can be focused on more than the recovery of materials from the solid waste stream. Resource Recovery Parks can include biomass power plants that utilize agricultural waste or wood waste to generate electricity. Eco-Parks can include processes to recycle or re-use water. There are many types of businesses and functions that can combine on one site or work together from multiple locations to achieve a goal to recovery materials for re-use, create electricity or energy, or create products out of materials that would otherwise be disposed. Examples of the latter might include making rubberized asphalt or dock bumpers out of tire chips or tire crumbles. Components of a resource recovery park may be unique to certain locales or certain parts of the country. There are no strict definitions of components that could make up a Resource Recovery Park.

Are their examples of Resource Recovery Parks in existence that have successfully eliminated the need for another disposal option – such as a landfill or waste-to-energy facility?

The first place that comes to mind is Boulder Colorado. Boulder City and Boulder County both have aggressive recycling programs, have recently introduced single stream recycling similar to what is proposed and currently being piloted in Frederick County, and have the benefit of a material recovery facility, constructed by the county and operated by Eco-Cycle. Eco-Cycle is a local non-profit that has been promoting recycling, re-use, and resource recovery in the Boulder area for over 20 years. Eco-Cycle also operates a fairly elaborate Resource Recovery Park. With all of these efforts combined, between 60% and 70% of Boulder's waste stream is disposed in one of two regional privately owned landfills. The Resource Recovery Park and other aggressive recycling and composting efforts have not eliminated the need for landfill disposal in Boulder.

Some other jurisdictions that come to mind are those communities that have adopted a Zero Waste strategy including a proposal for a Resource Recovery Park. Richard Anthony and Gary Liss, both self-described Zero Waste experts and solid waste professionals, designed a Resource Recovery Park for the City of Palo Alto in California. Palo Alto is a community that has adopted a zero waste strategy and implemented a number of programs and strategies to increase recycling, composting and diversion from their landfill (which is actually in San Jose). I have contacted the City of Palo Alto and asked if they have implemented the Resource Recovery Park designed by Richard Anthony and if so, to share their experience or success with this plan. I also asked if they had implemented curbside collection of organics. According to Susan Caudill, representing Palo Alto's recycling program, Palo Alto has not been successful in engaging private sector partners in their Resource Recovery Park as originally anticipated. Relatively small financial incentives or grants are being considered to encourage private sector partners. The City of Palo Alto also bid out curbside organic collection earlier this year, received two bids, but awarded neither because the cost was too high. The City of Palo Alto does compost organics from local food service vendors. Their webpage indicates that public composting is limited to grass clippings and yard waste similar to the composting currently operational in Frederick County. The City of Palo Alto has achieved a 60% total diversion rate after aggressive recycling, composting, waste reduction and resource recovery efforts. They continue to utilize a landfill for that portion of the waste stream that remains for disposal.

Another example of a Resource Recovery Park referenced by Gary Liss is a regional park located in Monterey, California. This Resource Recovery Park includes a 315 acre landfill with a 126 acre buffer area, administrative buildings, a public drop-off recycling station and re-sale facility, as well as, a landfill gas power project, a permanent household hazardous waste collection facility, a materials recovery facility or MRF, a construction and demolition recycling operation, composting, and a soils blending facility. The most unique operation in this Resource Recovery Park is the C & D recycling operation, which successfully diverts 60% of the C & D from the waste stream going into the landfill. This operation has helped achieve an overall diversion rate of 60%. A landfill is a component of this Resource Recovery Park. There is a clear recognition that a disposal option is essential.

Several citizens have suggested that Frederick County model a Resource Recovery Park after the one being planned in Austin, TX. I have attempted to obtain information from the City of Austin, Texas, but could acquire little information. It appears this proposed Resource Recovery Park is in the planning stages and that little information is available.

Many jurisdictions including Frederick County have components of a Resource Recovery Park. Expanding resource recovery efforts is a viable option for Frederick County and will help the county reach its 60% recycling/diversion goal and do so sooner. The County is planning to utilize existing capacity in a MRF in Elkridge, MD to process materials from single stream recycling. The County has also bid out Construction and Demolition (C & D) recycling. A landfill gas to energy project is also under consideration for the Reich's Ford Road landfill. E-cycling for electronics and computer components is currently available at the landfill location along with textile recycling.

In conclusion, I can find no known examples of Resource Recovery Parks eliminating the need for a disposal option such as a landfill or WTE facility. In fact, it appears that Resource Recovery Parks are often co-located with a landfill or WTE facility. Resource Recovery Parks are part of an integrated solid waste management system.

There is general consensus that the first step in responsibly managing the waste stream is waste prevention followed by recycling, composting, re-use, and resource recovery. There is general agreement among elected officials in Frederick County and the general public that waste prevention, recycling, composting, re-use and resource recovery are community priorities and at the top of the hierarchy for a successful integrated waste management system. Long-term waste disposal is needed for that portion of the waste stream that remains after these efforts. The options for long-term waste disposal include two major choices – landfills or waste-to-energy. Other choices such as plasma gasification and waste-to-ethanol are technologies that may become viable over the next ten years but are currently not demonstrated or proven in a large operation.

Frederick County must decide which option is best for our community. Do we want to bury our community's waste in a landfill risking negative environmental impacts to ground water? Or, do we want to pursue a Waste-to-Energy facility that raises concerns about air emissions and ash disposal?

Many Federal Superfund clean-up sites involve landfills. In these instances, the landfills have failed to prevent the leaching of toxins into ground water supplies including public drinking water sources. Technology has improved with lined landfills and sophisticated leachate collection and treatment systems. However, landfills must be monitored in perpetuity to protecting public health. Landfills also create methane gas, which is the most potent greenhouse gas. Landfill gas can be flared or captured and used to create electricity. Landfills also require a significant amount of land. County staff has indicated that a new landfill site would require 800 to 1,000 acres to assure a long-term disposal option of 50 years or more and to provide adequate area to buffer the operation from surrounding residents and businesses. It would be very difficult to site a landfill in an industrially zoned area since land areas of this size are not readily available. It is more likely that a new landfill location will consume agricultural land. Is this a good land-use decision?

Waste-to-Energy facilities (WTE) do raise concerns with air emissions and do create carbon emissions though significantly less than those created by coal generated power plants or natural gas power plants. While dioxins are eliminated through the use of high temperatures in the process and state of the art technology removes most toxins and pollutants from air emissions, some small amounts of toxins and particulate matter exist. Long-term testing of the ash demonstrates conclusively that the bottom ash and the fly ash can be mixed and can be made inert so that toxins and heavy metals will never leach. Trash is reduced, in terms of volume, by 90%. The remaining ash can be used as daily cover in a landfill or can be used in certain construction materials though this market has not been fully developed. A WTE facility can be located on a much smaller site than a landfill – approximately 25 acres. A WTE facility can also be reasonably located in an industrial area. If located outside an industrial area, additional land would be needed to buffer the operation from surrounding residents and businesses. A WTE facility consumes significantly less land than a landfill and is a better choice from a land-use perspective for this reason.

Both landfills and WTE facilities are controversial and difficult to locate without community opposition. Both landfills and WTE facilities present environmental risks that must be mitigated. Frederick County needs a disposal option for that portion of the waste stream that cannot be recycled, composted, re-used, or otherwise recovered or diverted. A disposal option is an essential component of all integrated waste management systems. Alternatives, such as material recovery facilities (MRFs) and Resource Recovery Parks, can reduce the volume of waste that remains for disposal but cannot avoid the need for disposal in its entirety.

Jan Gardner is President, Frederick County, Maryland Board of Commissioners


Anonymous said...

I read this and found that although most of the issues of solid waste disposal seem to be addressed, they don't seem to be described on an equal footing. Various means of reducing solid waste are described and in the end the conclusion is drawn that they don't eliminate solid waste 100%, seemingly to say this disqualifies them as candidates for consideration. But when WTE (an incinerator) is described with the 10% remaining ash, it is not presented this way. In fact, using the ash as "daily cover" in a landfill seems to be a desirable option. But if no landfill is to be built, these ash materials remain as toxic waste to be disposed of.

I would like to see a clear presentation of the current plans the county is developing with an analysis of all options evaluated on equal terms against objective criteria. Just "discussing" each option does not really help us understand which are good and which are bad.

The one aspect of the incinerator that is seldom discussed in this debate is the enormous cost. With the current population of 225,000 and assuming a final cost of $500 million (which can easily be overrun) the incinerator will cost each and every man, woman and child $2,222! The money can be borrowed at 6% interest rate for $2,632,020 per month or $31,584,240 per year doubling our current obligation. That will require a nearly 10% increase in our taxes to pay this bill. The grand total amount paid for the incinerator will be a whopping one and a half billion dollars! This is not in place of the current waste disposal costs, this is *on top* of them. Is this really an affordable option?

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

I just saw your post because it was made long after the initial article was written. To answer a couple of your questions - the 10% ash residual is planned to be used as landfill cover in the existing Frederick County landfill. If all the county's waste were disposed of in our existing landfill, the landfill would be full in 3 to 5 years. By limiting the waste into the landfill with WTE, the existing landfill is predicted to have a life of 40 to 50 years. If WTE is not pursued and the county decided to build another landfill, it will be needed much sooner. WTE will not cost Frederick County $500 million. It will cost, including a reserve fund and the cost to finance the bonds, approximately $300 million. Most to all of the construction cost will be paid for by the sale of electricity from the facility itself. The cost per ton to dispose of our waste is projected to be less than our current cost of shipping our waste out of the county - by $3 to $5 million annually. Current tipping fees and revenue from the sale of electricity will cover the cost. No increases in fees are anticipated. The burden to taxpayers you suggest fails to acknowledge the revenue from the sale of electricity and the current money being spent in solid waste none of which comes from general taxation but from specific solid waste disposal fees, mostly tipping fees. Thanks for your interest. Jan Gardner