Waste to energy can complement a municipality’s solid waste management plan without negatively affecting recycling rates.
New York’s Westchester County has developed an Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan with the objective of minimizing waste and maximizing reuse and recycling while using waste-to-energy (WTE) technology to dispose of nonrecyclable material.
Opponents of WTE technology charge that it competes with recycling and creates a disincentive for collectors to encourage source reduction and recycling because, unlike a landfill, it provides a permanent waste disposal solution. However, evidence from several case studies routinely demonstrates how communities using WTE (which is lower on the solid waste disposal hierarchy than reduction, reuse and recycling) usually excel in the first three methods of materials management.
Westchester County serves as additional verification that WTE does not inhibit source reduction, reuse and recycling. It also demonstrates how this disposal method fits into an integrated solid waste management plan and also furthers the objectives of New York state’s Solid Waste Management Plan.
Developing a Plan
Westchester County, which is located in the Hudson Valley region, is comprised of 43 municipalities and has a population of 950,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Forty towns in the county provide curbside collection of garbage and recyclables, reaching more than 95 percent of the population.
In 1979, 35 municipalities joined a special assessment district, called the Refuse Disposal District No. 1 (RDD), and reserved capacity at the WTE facility through an inter-municipal agreement (IMA). The 35 municipalities agreed to handle residentially collected solid waste using the county-developed infrastructure. The municipalities in the RDD currently deliver municipal solid waste (MSW) either to a county transfer station or directly to the Charles Point Resource Recovery Facility. Since the formation of the RDD, it has come to represent approximately 90 percent of the county’s population.
Prior to 1984, the county used the Croton Point Landfill for disposal of MSW. The WTE facility became, and continues to be, the sole disposal site for RDD waste.
In 1992, Westchester County passed a source-separation law that required waste generators, haulers and transfer stations to recycle certain items—mainly glass, plastic and metal bottles and cans as well as newsprint, office paper and corrugated cardboard. Also in 1992, Westchester County finished construction of the Daniel P. Thomas Material Recovery Facility (MRF), one of the first MRFs in the nation. Used solely by members of the RDD, tipping recyclables at the MRF is free. In contrast, the county facility charges a fee for tipping garbage.
The N.Y. Department of Environmental Facilities (DEF) serves as the designated planning unit for all of the county’s 43 municipalities and manages the RDD. The DEF oversees several solid waste and recycling facilities as well as countywide recycling and waste reduction programs.
The Charles Point facility incinerates about 700,000 tons of garbage per year to create enough electricity to power 88,000 homes. It is developed and owned by the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency, a public benefit corporation, and operated by Wheelabrator of Westchester, a subsidiary of Waste Management. In October 2009, the county entered into an agreement with Wheelabrator for solid waste disposal for 10 years with three five-year renewal options. Under the new agreement, the county pays a set fee per ton of solid waste disposed at the Charles Point facility, which is subject to an annual adjustment. The contract allows the county to divert up to 50,000 tons of solid waste annually to explore new solid waste disposal technologies, such as pyrolysis, gasification, digestion or co-composting.
The WTE facility, which also accepts solid waste from private haulers, is equipped with a magnetic separation system that extracts ferrous metals from the incoming waste stream. More than 12,600 tons of ferrous metal were recovered for recycling in 2011 at the facility. A byproduct of the incineration process is ash, some of which is reused as landfill cover.
Opponents of WTE technology claim that the process burns valuable resources that should be recycled or composted and that it competes for the same material, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. According to the Sierra Club, those who are responsible for overseeing WTE facilities are not concerned with separating recyclables from the waste stream before it is burned.
This has not been the case in Westchester County. Government administrators, who oversee both recycling and solid waste disposal, continually strive to increase the recycling rate and to encourage waste reduction. More than 25 years of solid waste planning in Westchester County provides ample evidence.
Since 1984, Westchester County has been using the WTE facility to dispose of nonrecyclable material. Since that time, the DEF developed an Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan that sought to decrease waste and maximize reuse and recycling.
In May of 1988, Westchester County DEF adopted the Solid Waste Management Plan – Phase II. At that time, the agency estimated a 5 percent recycling rate for commercial and residential waste and set the goal to achieve, at minimum, a 25 percent recycling rate. Although the initial plan addressed reduction, reuse and recycling as a means to ensure adequate disposal capacity at the WTE facility, it evolved over the next 20 years to embrace the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) solid waste management hierarchy.
Although the EPA’s solid waste hierarchy always favored waste reduction over reuse or recycling, it was hard to quantify such measures. Recycling rates became the measuring stick for solid waste management. This was reflected in the state’s focus on achieving certain recycling rates rather than looking at reduction, reuse and generation. However, Westchester County has been focusing on waste reduction for years.
In 1992, Westchester County passed a source-separation law (SSL) that required “waste generators” (individuals, businesses, schools and institutions) to recycle newsprint, high-grade paper, corrugated cardboard, glass, metal, bulk metal, plastics (high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate), vehicle batteries and used motor oil. It also required waste haulers to separately collect recyclable items set out for curbside collection. For more than 20 years, recycling has been the law in Westchester.
The number of mandated recyclables has expanded. In 2008 the law was amended to add gray cardboard to the list and to modify the definition of a waste generator so that the same rules applied to individuals as well as to businesses, schools and institutions. In June 2011 plastics 3 through 7 joined plastics 1 and 2 among mandated recyclable materials. Westchester County also has sought to include additional materials among the “mandated recyclables” to increase diversion.
Tasked with Growth
By 2007 it was noted that recycling rates had leveled off in the upper 40s. This fell short of New York’s goal for 50 percent recycling, and Westchester County sought to improve this.
County Executive Andrew J. Spano assigned personnel to a special task force with the responsibility of developing and introducing a SSL enforcement program. The newly formed Recycling Enforcement Task Force (RETF) was charged with increasing recycling countywide through a combination of education and enforcement.
|Some communities such as Westchester County, N.Y. or Lancaster County, Pa., pictured above, have reduced the amount of meterial they landfill through a combination of recycling and WTE. [Photos courtesty Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCWMSA).]
During December 2007 and January 2008, the RETF issued two types of “Oops!” stickers to municipal and private carters for their sanitation personnel to apply to improperly commingled garbage and recyclables. Yellow Oops! stickers were used as warnings for waste generators, though carters still collected the improperly mixed loads. Beginning Feb. 1, 2008, municipal and private carters left improperly sorted waste with an informative red Oops! sticker and did not collect the garbage.
After an additional six-month warning period, inspectors began writing supporting depositions of observed violations. Based upon an inspector’s observations, DEF issues Notices of Hearing, which officially charge waste generators and haulers with violations of the SSL. When violations are found to have occurred, administrative fines may be assessed, ranging from up to $100 for a first-time violation to $1,000 for repeat offenders. That program has continued, with two full-time inspectors in the field. As of June 2012 1,215 cases have been prosecuted.
The result is a boost in recycling rates. In 2008, recyclables delivered to the MRF (compared with garbage) increased 18 percent. Again in 2009 there was a large boost in recyclables compared with garbage (19 percent). And between 2009 and 2010, increases in recyclables collected from private haulers jumped from 35 percent to 48 percent. These activities were undertaken even though nonrecyclable solid waste was delivered to the WTE facility.
Further Reduction Sought
Since 1988, Westchester County has continually evaluated and increased recycling and waste-reduction activities, though all nonrecyclable waste is delivered to a WTE facility that has sufficient capacity for county disposal needs. Even though the county is confident that the facility serves as a long-term viable disposal option, it has not deterred the local planning unit from taking a proactive stance toward reducing the amount of nonrecycled waste disposed.
New York state’s recently released solid waste management plan aims to reduce nonrecycled solid waste from an average of 4.5 pounds per person per day (ppd) to 0.6 pounds by 2030. Many contend that using WTE conflicts with the goals of the state plan and that this technology disincentivizes recycling. However, incinerating solid waste to generate energy furthers many of the quantitative goals of the state plan. Also, the only way Westchester County anticipates meeting the 0.6 ppd goal is by incinerating nonrecyclable materials to minimize the volume and weight of residuals.
Ultimately, it can be concluded that using WTE as a disposal method is not only a healthy part of an integrated solid waste management plan but is also an essential component to meeting the state’s conservation goals.
The author is with the Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities, New Rochelle, N.Y.
To read more about Westchester County’s complementary approaches to manage solid waste, visit www.REWmag.com/rew1212-waste-to-energy-focus.aspx.