Where does Boston’s trash go?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/23/where-does-bostons-trash-go/

BOSTON – On a cold rainy morning last week, a garbage truck carrying two men wound its way through the narrow alleyways of downtown Boston. Squeezing past morning commuters, the truck rolled behind brick townhouses, with one of the men picking up and emptying green and blue bins into the back along the way.

While many morning commuters see these trundling hulks as smelly eyesores that back up traffic, the city’s 50 or so garbage trucks roam the streets and alleys to pick up and haul away unwanted waste. They provide a public service that launches the trash and recyclables on a journey that for some of it ends in Asian factories and for other bits concludes in local compost heaps and landfills.

Like mail carriers, the work goes on regardless of the elements.

“Whether it’s cold or hot out, snowing – they’re dredging through it,” said Robert W. DeRosa, the superintendent of the waste reduction division of the city’s Public Works Department. “It’s very intensive.”

Boston’s trash collectors pick up about 200,000 tons of trash along with 36,000 tons of single-stream recyclable items annually from the city’s households. The labor intensive work costs the city close to $39 million a year.

Sunrise Scavenger and Capital Waste Services, two city contractors, manage the trucks and their routes, which they ply Monday through Friday beginning at 7 a.m. Each truck, typically operated by two workers, collects 14 to 15 tons of trash daily.

“It’s a lot of manual labor, lifting a lot of things all day long,” said Brian Coughlin, the assistant superintendent of the division. “People see them in front of their house but they don’t realize the guy is doing that close to 10,000 households per truck.”

From the pickup point, most of Boston’s trash is sent to one of two incinerator operators, Wheelabrator Technologies in Saugus and Covanta, whose plants are in Haverhill and Rochester. Some of the waste travels by way of a transfer station in Lynn.

Once it reaches an incinerator, the waste is conveyed into a combustion chamber where it is burned at an extremely high temperature. The heat generated fires boilers whose steam drives power-generating turbines. The electricity they create feeds into the power grid to help light homes and offices.

The ash created by the combustion process is filtered to extract metal that can be recycled. Some of the resulting material is used as cover material at conventional landfills, and some goes into landfills with other waste that can’t be burned.

“The majority of it will end up in an incinerator,” DeRosa said of the city’s waste. “There’s only a small percentage that will have to be landfilled. There’s just items that are non-burnable, but the majority of it will be incinerated and turned into electricity.”

While the incinerator operators sell the power they generate, they also charge the communities who send their trash to the facilities. Currently, Boston pays $60 to $75 for each ton that’s delivered to an incinerator.

By comparison, recycling costs the city a lot less – just $5 a ton. Still, there was a time when Boston got paid for its recyclables.

“It used to be nice when they used to pay us,” Coughlin said. He believes that recycling costs will eventually rise to equal what the city pays for trash incineration.

Casella Waste Systems handles Boston’s recyclables, using a zero-sort system in Charlestown. The system uses a combination of automated and manual sorting to channel steel, aluminum and plastic to various processes. Some plastics, typically clear containers for water or soda, go into one process while opaque materials, often used for milk and juice bottles, go into another.

The processed plastic, metal and paper is then ready for delivery to industrial users, either in the U.S. or abroad. Paper, for instance, tends to go to Mexico or Canada, according to Adam Mitchell, the major account representative and partner at Save that Stuff in Charlestown. Plastic mostly goes to resource-poor countries in Asia that use our waste in manufacturing products including items shipped to the U.S. for sale to consumers.

“I used to joke that the largest volume export out of the port of New York is scrap metal followed by paper,” said Mitchell. The exported metal, he added, “can one come back as a Subaru that you buy.”

There are two major things happening in the recycling world, Mitchell said. One is that prices are at historic lows because of a plunge in energy prices over the past two years. Most plastic is made with petroleum products, so production costs have dropped, and that has reduced demand for recycled material.

Secondly, there has been a decline in the quality of recycled items, Mitchell said.

“A lot of times recyclers that want to do the right thing put in things that the plant isn’t able to process, like flexible plastic or flexible tubing or garden hoses or pots and pans,” he said. “Things that technically could be recycled but can’t easily be recycled.”

He added that many recycled items don’t make it back to a bottle or other consumer product but instead wind up in lower grade things such as construction materials.

As for yard waste, collections of which begin in April, it goes to an aerated static pile facility at the Mattapan Ecovation Center. The organic material produces carbon dioxide enriched air, which is heated and pumped into an adjacent greenhouse where it helps plants grow, according to a release from City Hall last year.

The composting facility can handle about 1,000 cubic yards of waste annually. Coughlin said the mulch created by the composting process is used in Boston’s public garden.

“It’s a dirty job and it’s a thankless job for sure,” he said.