Many of Mrs. Bumpkin’s friends are jealous of the attention that is lavished upon her by yours truly. There are the fine dinners at DiAngelo’s sub shop, the jaunty rides around town in my Kia, and the high living in our 100+ year old home that doesn’t look a day over 88 and a half. I really pulled out all the stops when we recently did a fascinating tour of - wait for it - the SEMASS waste to energy plant located just over the Middleboro town line on Route 28. The tour answered a lot of questions about how SEMASS operates and it also corrected a lot of misconceptions I had about the recycling program here in Middleboro. Admittedly, trash handling and recycling is not a sexy topic. It is, however, something that we are all paying a pretty penny for and it is in our best interests to understand how things work. Our friend Eric decided to stop wondering what happened to his trash and start investigating it. This led to a tour of SEMASS for three lucky couples, including the Bumpkins.
SEMASS is a facility owned by Covanta Energy that takes trash and converts it to electricity. The conversion is done by burning the trash to boil water and using the steam to spin turbines that generate electricity. That’s the simple description. Trucks and trains bring in loads of trash that is processed in various ways to remove any materials, particularly metal, that can be recycled. It is then shredded and blown into a combustion chamber. The exhaust is run through several air pollution control systems and finally emitted from a smokestack. Ash from various stages of burning are collected and disposed of in a landfill. They are fully monitored and must adhere to state and federal regulations that seem to provide sufficient oversight. For all the recent talk about decreasing regulations on business, I don’t think I’d like to see less regulation and monitoring of facilities like this one.
SEMASS is considered to be an environmentally sound alternative to landfills. It is, however, difficult to paint a rosy picture of a 300-foot smokestack from a plant that burns trash. Covanta claims that SEMASS has offset “26,000,000 tons of greenhouse gases, the equivalent of removing five million passenger vehicles from the road for one year.” It has generated over 15 million megawatts since 1990. If that energy wasn’t coming from SEMASS it would most likely come from some other power plant that was burning coal, oil, or natural gas. The facility has recycled over 1 million tons of metal. The trash that enters the facility is dramatically reduced by the burning process — 90% by volume and 75% by weight. That means a lot less material winds up in a landfill that would eventually leak out as methane. All that is good but let’s not pretend that the emissions from the stack are plumes of lavender perfume. Trash is a nasty business whether you are burying it or burning it.
By the numbers
SEMASS handles one million tons of trash each year — about 20% of all solid waste in Massachusetts and generates enough electricity to power 75,000 homes. The company seems to be serious about being environmentally friendly. SEMASS(and state law) does not want to be burning things that can be recycled. They are constantly looking for ways to improve their process to make it more efficient and cleaner.
Middleboro, along with a lot of towns on the Cape, sent their trash to SEMASS for many years. After the initial contracts expired, they were faced with a large increases that led them to look for alternatives. Middleboro contracted with Waste Management to drastically expand the capacity of the Middleboro landfill. This agreement gave us a very favorable rate to dispose of trash — $25 per ton. That is less than half of what many communities pay for solid waste disposal. As part of the deal, Waste Management makes money by disposing of trash from other towns at the Middleboro landfill. Much of that trash was formerly burned at SEMASS. I have mixed feelings about this deal. I can understand why we did it, but I don’t like the idea of taking trash from all these other towns and owning it forever while we hope the landfill doesn’t leak.
The woman who ran our tour of SEMASS, Patti Howard, did an exceptional job explaining the plant and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the work they are doing. Their burn product is much better if the towns sending them trash do a good job with recycling. That brings me to recycling and some of the misconceptions I had about it. The things you put in your recycling bucket ultimately become a “product” that is eventually sold to be recycled. If you throw things in that should not be recycled, it lowers the value of the product. Taken to an extreme, a load of recyclables with enough tainted material becomes worthless and could wind up as landfill. Recently there was a bit of chatter on Facebook about Middleboro inspecting recycling buckets and refusing to take them if they had a lot non-recyclables in it. The DPW has plenty of information online about what can be recycled or disposed of in the trash at http://middleborough.com/rubbishrecycling/.
Paper, glass, and plastic … except
One of the big recycling villains is plastic bags. They get tangled in the mechanical sorting machines and generally create havoc. Styrofoam is another no-no. Given that so much styrofoam is used in packaging, it would be nice to have a convenient way of recycling it. DPW take note. Paper is OK, right? Not always. Hardcover books should not be put in the recycling. The same goes for paper towels, tissues and shredded paper. Not all glass is created equal as far as recycling is concerned. Window glass, automobile glass, crystal, etched or frosted glass, and drinking glasses are all on the “don’t” list. Large plastic items like children’s toys should not be put into the recycling.
We have it pretty good in Middleboro with regards to trash and recycling. Plenty of towns pay as much as we do for the honor of hauling their own waste to a landfill. Plenty of towns pay quite a bit more than we do for private firms for services that are nowhere near as good. Being a bit more diligent about what we put into our recycling bins is not really a big ask.
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