Contemplating this article, this Earth Day, I am sadly and soberly reminded of the Authority’s wastewater public education campaign where the young child is heard earnestly inquiring of her grandma, “Where does it go?” referring to the disappearing liquid waste contents of a recently flushed toilet.
Her grandma replies to the Wastewater Treatment Plant where it is properly treated and discharged to the ocean. Unfortunately, when solid waste “disappears” from the curbside or the bin site, she must reply to the question “where does it go?” by saying “to the Bovoni (or Anguilla) Landfill where they are constructing a new mountain and covering it with dirt to camouflage the environmental disaster brewing underground in hopes that one day we will figure out what to do about it.”
Waste diversion can claim an appreciable amount of the waste stream for recycling or reuse. Recycling of diverted waste gives new life to worn and used materials and reduces the energy and associated pollutants required to manufacture the same product again. Diverted waste materials can also be remanufactured into a different new product. In essence recycling recaptures energy “stored” (used) during the manufacturing of the product. Recycling is a green technology.
Reuse of diverted waste, on the other hand, extends the product’s useful life in an alternate function and merely postpones disposal. Ideally, if recycling and reusing products continued in perpetuity, we could conceivably approach zero waste. Yet, zero waste has not even been achieved in the nations with the most advanced and aggressive recycling programs. Thus, ultimately, we still MUST treat or dispose of solid waste which cannot be or is not recycled or reused in some manner.
The energy “stored” in solid waste disposed in landfills in the form of methane gas can be recovered through landfill gas to energy systems. To meet the Clean Air Act requirements, landfill gas is collected and controlled by flaring to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At more than 22%, methane gas from landfills is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Landfill gas to energy is a green technology. Are new landfills the way to go, then? NOT in America’s Paradise! Our insular nature, limited land space, and treasured environmental resources require a much more sustainable and thoughtful solution that ensures and maintains our healthy quality of life.
Based on input from members of both Citizen Advisory Committees (CAC) in St. Thomas and St. Croix, in 2006, our sustainable Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan would combine waste-to-energy technology with a 20% waste diversion target. Data and evidence show that nations globally enjoy greater recycling rates when teamed with complementary WTE plants. Denmark boasts a recycling rate greater than 25% and as much as 50% with 29 WTEs serving 98 municipalities and 10 more plants in the planning and/or construction phase. Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands lead the pack in expanding and building new WTE plants in Europe while the United States lags behind.
The Alpine waste-to-energy projects are among the first in the second wave of WTE projects to sweep the Unites States since the 1980s. These projects will achieve both diversion and conversion goals. President Obama, the federal government, and 24 states classify municipal solid waste as a renewable energy resource making these projects eligible for very attractive investment tax credits (ITCs). ITCs that could be obtained for these projects could bring in tens of millions of dollars in cash assets that would significantly offset the capital or operating costs for these projects. The Alpine projects represent the intersection where green waste management and green energy meet. Waste-to-energy is a green technology.
On April 13, 2010, the NY Times reported that in Horsholm, where they have the highest per-capita income in Denmark, that WTE plants are “both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark, from wealthy exurbs like Horsholm to Copenhagen’s downtown area. Not only have energy costs and reliance on oil and gas been reduced but landfill and carbon dioxide emissions have also been reduced. And, further, many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbeques than from incineration.” In Europe, municipal solid waste has become a clean alternative fuel rather than a smelly and unsightly problem.
Public and political resistance to WTE plants is expected as evidenced 15 years ago when most of the 87 plants currently operating in the US were proposed and approved for construction and operation. While the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and other powerful environmental groups may argue that WTE technology is not complementary to recycling, it would be irrational to expect the Virgin Islands to achieve zero waste without combustion of solid waste materials that are not recycled or reused to “recycle” (recover) energy. Indeed, with both of the territory’s landfills closing due to noncompliance with regulatory requirements and the limited remaining capacity AND no new landfill projects on the drawing board, what would the environmentalists have us do with waste that is not recycled or reused?
Quoted in the NY Times article, Nickolas Themelis, a professor of engineering and respected expert and proponent of waste-to-energy technologies at Colombia University stated that “America’s (the Virgin Islands’) resistance to constructing …new plants was economically and environmentally “irresponsible”.
Air pollution from harmful emissions has been a popular factor used to condemn the only viable solution for the territory of the Virgin Islands. Volumes of emissions data for existing waste to-energy plants that demonstrate beyond a doubt that smaller amounts of harmful pollutants are formed due to better combustion technologies and that substantially all of those pollutants formed are removed by the best available control technologies approved by EPA and local regulatory agencies. Successful waste diversion of special wastes and recyclables also produces cleaner emissions and ash residue for beneficially reuse. Beneficial reuse of ash is a green technology.
With large upfront capital expenditures and credit availability in the present financial market, these privately financed projects may just be our only affordable and achievable sustainable solution. It is inconceivable that we would consider barging waste to facilities outside the territory as a primary treatment and disposal strategy. Secondary treatment and disposal out of the territory could prove to be cost prohibitive and should only be used as emergency back stop. Annual costs for out of state disposal not only ran New York up a tab of $307 million but also pumped large amounts of heavy greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere during long transportation hauls to out of state landfills.
Environmental laws similar to those in Europe and Asia should be drafted and passed to facilitate the development of WTE facilities and provide incentives that ensure that materials are diverted for recycling where and when economically feasible. Paying for waste disposal through solid waste advance disposal fees and providing no cost recycling and potentially redemption centers would increase the front end diversion of recyclables. Enforcement of the laws by the all law enforcement agencies, the collective public participation and judicial support to uphold fines and penalties would greatly support this transition from a “free” service to user service – use the service …pay for the service.
The Virgin Islands Recycling Partnership is an initiative co-sponsored by the VI Waste Management Authority and the USEPA. One mutual objective is to address market barriers to successful recycling programs for small island communities such as ours. This partnership will seek to identify means to connect with and expand recycling markets by teaming with our sister Puerto Rico Recycling Partnership and exploring opportunities with the wider Caribbean through our continued affiliations with and by memberships in several Caribbean organizations including the VI Government’s planned, historic membership in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).
Nonetheless, we cannot always count on transporting recyclables to off shore market as there may be times when it is neither economically feasible nor environmentally sound. This activity could prove to be a drain on the local economy with very little local jobs created or related businesses stimulated. On island economic business development programs and incentives are necessary to maximize the economic benefits of waste created from millions of tons of imported goods. Product stewardship programs by manufacturers should assume transportation cost on the back haul of imported goods – legislation should be drafted. EPA’s own Jobs Through Recycling (JTR) program should seek to maximize these benefits in the communities where the waste is generated to make recycling truly sustainable.
Waste and Energy are a formidable team in the Go Green campaign embraced globally and implemented locally. If one thing is clear: recycling, landfill gas, waste-to-energy and beneficial reuse of ash are all green technologies.
Go Earth Day – Go Green!
May Adams Cornwall
Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority