Trash plan -- and pellets -- approved; more talk about all

I love trash.

Every time I think I’m starting to understand it pretty well, along comes something else to intrigue.

This morning, Philadelphia City Council gave its approval for new waste contracts that determine how the refuse will be handled for potentially seven years down the road.

The contracts would save the city $69 million in disposal costs, but environmental groups were upset at the continuation -- perhaps even an escalation -- of incineration. Or, as the industry calls it, waste to energy, since electricity is produced.

The city wants to do more with waste reduction and recycling, said Streets commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson, but they’re not there now.

I wrote about the issue in this morning’s newspaper, but there are a lot more details that may be of interest to those who are really into trash.

Environmental groups remain very concerned about the incineration -- especially about a plan to send much of the trash stream to a new plant that Waste Management would build to turn some of the trash into pellets that could then be burned as an auxiliary fuel in coal-fired power plants, cement kilns and other industrial boilers.

Indeed, as word spread of the contract, the groups began a campaign to put off the vote. Tolson hastily invited them to a meeting on Wednesday.

Environmental groups’ concerns about incineration may be a little late, some said.

“I say, where have you been? They’ve been burning our trash for the past 16 years,” said Maurice Sampson II, a solid waste expert. He’s president of Niche Recycling Inc. in Philadelphia, but in this context he’s speaking as a solid waste consultant for the state environmental group, PennFuture.

“I think ultimately we shouldn’t burn or bury our trash either,” Sampson said. The technology and the markets to do otherwise are there. But not necessarily the planning, he said.

So for now, we’re stuck with it. “To take out the incineration part, they would have to leave the trash on the street. There will be no place to put it,” Sampson said.

This is where the ten-year plan for waste disposal comes in. The city was supposed to have one in place by now, but it doesn’t. Indeed, it may be a few years away. So some critics focused on that. How do you finalize a contract for seven years (four years plus the option of three one-year extensions) without knowing where you ultimately want to end up?

But the city does, after all, need SOME contract, and with this one, “we’re not going to have any crises” for the next seven years, Sampson said. “So when we get to 2020 we can have a system in place that will allow us to put the next contract out” with significant changes.

Still putting off the discussion of the pellets for the moment, another concern of environmental groups is that the contract guarantees the two companies that ultimately will deal with the city’s waste, Covanta and Waste Management, a minimum amount.

Would this undermine efforts to reduce and recycle the trash?

Tolson says no. That the contract allows city trucks to deliver 75 percent of the minimum without penalty. And the amount can be adjusted downward every year.

“Maybe its our hope. Maybe it’s our pipe dream. But we are allowing ourselves to reduce that significantly, and doing that without liability of hitting a wall,” Tolson said. “We can reduce our trash by 25 percent and not be in violation of contracts.”

The city is about to get a new recycling coordinator and environmental groups wondered about what would happen if lax commercial recycling were addressed and the amount of waste was reduced dramatically.

“If the new person brings us below that” -- exceeding a 25 percent reduction -- “I’ll pay the blasted penalties,” Tolson said.

So it will be interesting to see if recycling and waste reduction continue and grow, or if they lag.

These are questions only our prosperous Western society could be having, alas. What do we do with all this stuff? How do we get the best use out of the resource formerly known as trash?

Waste Management is betting its future that making good use of the stuff is worthwhile, that it has monetary value worth trying to cash in on. Markets are opening up. Their thinking is that this is the time for selling it, not chucking the stuff into the ground, covering it and tending it for generations upon generations.

All of which brings us back to the pellet plan.

The bottom of the hierarchy for dealing with waste is to landfill it or incinerate it, and which is better is a matter of debate, often depending on the specifics of individual facilities. With burning, you get BTUs, but you also get emissions. Another minus that environmental groups note is that all too often, perfectly recyclable or reusable stuff gets burned. Plus, the process is final. Once it’s burned, you can’t do anything more with it except worry about the ash.

Waste Management say that’s what this plant does. It removes everything that can be removed and then turns the rest -- some plastics that are difficult to recycle and paper that is contaminated with goo or other stuff -- into pellets.

Environmental groups are waiting. They want to see the data, the proof. So far, the only other plant like this, Waste Management’s facility in San Antonio, is too young -- only in operation since October -- to give good data.

But the conversation on Wednesday had a fascinating tendril -- would the pellets help reduce air pollution coming from coal-fired power plants? Waste Management says it would. That made sense to some in the room. Others remained highly skeptical. Details weren’t discussed.

The big question mark in all this remains the organic waste _ the food waste and other compostables. Waste Management says they’re going to try to remove it, and perhaps send it to an industrial composting facility that they are part owner of in Wilmington. But that plan is not final, and it seems unlikely they’ll do this if the money isn’t there.

Other concerns were summed up by Clean Water Action’s Brady Russell in a statement issued after city council’s approval of the contracts and the plant, whose pellets are being called SpecFuel. They show how complicated all the facets of handling trash can be.

“We don’t know where Waste Management’s SpecFuel is going. In some cases, an old coal plant can have worse air pollution controls than a new incinerator, which may mean that the pollution profile of burnt SpecFuel turns out to worse than if it had been traditionally incinerated,” he said.

Also, “by getting into the business of SpecFuel, Philadelphia is now in the business of sustaining the Coal Burning Power Industry by helping it to meet its regulatory pollution targets; thereby sustaining an industry that environmentalists believe should have died out by now.”

Russell concluded, “In summary, there is much too much that we don’t understand. Since the Administration made the decision to bypass environmentalists in moving these contract until the day before this vote, we can only draw the conclusion that there is more we would be troubled by given more time to evaluate them.”

PennFuture remains supportive of the plan: “PennFuture applauds the city for seeking an innovative, alternative approach to waste disposal with this new facility,” said Andrew Sharp, the group’s Philadelphia outreach coordinator.

But this group, like others, continued to point to the lack of input the Streets Department sought. “That said, the city would have been much better served by this process – and received much less suspicion -- had there been more engagement with the environmental community and more time to examine the proposal. With no further delay, I’d encourage the Mayor to appoint a well balanced Solid Waste & Recycling Advisory Committee and charge them with the responsibility of preparing a 10-year municipal solid waste plan,” as required under a waste reduction act the state passed in 1988.

What’s interesting about all this -- aside from the pro and con -- is that the city seems to be searching for innovations. Tolson said the request-for-proposal invited innovations, but the city didn’t get any, other than the pellet plant. (Russell said the reason they didn’t get a proposal for an organic waste composting option is that the request-for-proposal was only for dealing with trash once it reached the sorting stations...potentially too late for serious composting alternatives.” )

I’m reminded of the city’s recent partnership with InSinkerator to provide garbage disposals so food waste would enter the city sewage system, travel via gravity to the sewage treatment plant, and then wind up as electricity or fertilizer.

Eyebrows were raised high at the city joining hands with a private company -- just how much was InSinkerator getting out of it? But others aren’t bothered by the trade-off. If the city is using its potential endorsement as a way to get companies to spend money and lend their technology, maybe that’s okay, they figured.

Post a comment. Stay tuned.