Waste to energy does not have to negatively affect recycling rates but instead can complement a municipality’s solid waste management plan.
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 technology to dispose of nonrecyclable material.
Opponents of waste-to-energy 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 waste-to-energy (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 waste-to-energy does not inhibit source reduction, reuse and recycling. In 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, comprises 43 municipalities and 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 waste-to-energy 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 waste-to-energy 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.
At this time, 27 states and territories define municipal solid waste (MSW) as a renewable energy source when diverted to a waste-to-energy facility. The New York State Energy Law classifies “wastes” in the definition of a renewable energy resource. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York state differentiate between MSW diverted for combustion with energy recovery and MSW discarded in a landfill or combusted without energy recovery.
Waste-to-energy is an important component of the county’s integrated solid waste management plan, since it supports the objectives of New York state’s Solid Waste Management Plan. Below are some of the plan’s quantitative goals and a description of how waste-to-energy complements them.
Maximize Reuse. The waste-to-energy process maximizes the capture and reuse of ferrous metals that otherwise would have been buried in landfills. According to a study published in 2003, waste-to-energy plants operating in the U.S. recover almost 800,000 tons of ferrous metals and more than 850,000 tons of other recyclable materials annually. Last year, Westchester’s facility recovered more than 12,500 tons of ferrous metal from waste that was delivered to the facility. Although this material ideally would have been separated for recycling by the waste generator, it is fortunate that it can still be recovered.
Maximize Recycling. As previously mentioned, studies have shown that throughout the U.S., communities that use waste-to-energy facilities routinely report higher recycling rates than those without such facilities. According to a study of more than 500 communities across 22 states that use waste-to-energy for waste disposal, these areas boast recycling rates at least 3 to 5 percentage points above the national average. The study also found that state and municipal solid waste policies and programs have a greater effect on recycling rates than the method of final disposal.
Westchester County ranks among New York state’s top recycling counties. In 2008, the county instituted an aggressive recycling enforcement program that resulted in a significant increase in its curbside recycling rate, thereby demonstrating that by instituting innovative programs, recycling can increase within waste-to-energy jurisdictions.
Minimize Waste Disposal. The residual generated by the incineration process is ash, which must be disposed of or beneficially reused. Currently, Westchester County’s ash is beneficially reused as daily cover at a landfill. Obviously, this is not ideal, since landfills are not an adequate solution to waste management. However, as of 2006, nine states approve the beneficial use of waste-to-Energy ash as a construction material for road construction. Although New York State is not among those states that will allow for the beneficial reuse of ash, applications are proven. If ash can be used beneficially, you can achieve “zero waste” by recycling and composting everything possible and then using the residual to generate electricity, heat and construction materials.
Create “Green Jobs.” An integral part of Beyond Waste is the premise that decreasing the amount of material that is routed to a landfill creates the potential for local green jobs, to aid with economic development. Wheelabrator of Westchester employs 64 individuals. Without the waste-to-energy facility, these jobs would not exist, and instead there would be a need to transfer solid waste from the county to distant landfills—requiring truck and rail operations. Although this work would be important, it is “greener” and preferable to provide employment in the more advanced sectors that Wheelabrator of Westchester offers.
Maximize the Energy Value of Materials Management. Waste-to-energy technology maximizes the energy value of solid waste that would otherwise be disposed of in a landfill. Waste-to-energy facilities in the U.S. generate approximately 17 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy annually, which is roughly 20 percent of the nation’s non-hydroelectric renewable energy. Moreover, waste-to-energy generates many more times the amount of energy than can be harnessed from the capture of methane gas from landfills.
Minimize the Climate Impacts of Materials Management. Waste-to-energy is a proven method for reducing greenhouse gases. Every ton of solid waste processed at a waste-to-energy facility saves approximately one ton of carbon dioxide equivalents from being emitted into the atmosphere. Waste-to-energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding the combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity; avoiding methane emissions associated with landfills; and through the recovery of ferrous and nonferrous metals from waste. In the case of Westchester County, using the Charles Point Waste-to-Energy facility in Peekskill reduces the greenhouse gases that would otherwise be emitted if the county were required to transport its waste to a distant landfill.
Minimize the Need for Long-range Export of Residual Waste. An added benefit of using waste-to-energy is that it avoids any environmental justice issues surrounding waste management. Environmental justice is defined by EPA as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Very few people want to live next to a landfill that contains their own garbage, and fewer want to live next to a landfill that contains someone else’s waste. Waste-to-Energy obviates the need for long-range transfer and disposal. The footprint of a plant is much smaller than the comparable space needed to landfill residual. Thus, waste-to-energy facilities can be built where the waste is generated rather than exported to a region that is less populated and perhaps less affluent.
Other municipal actors have realized the benefit of waste-to-energy as being a sustainable local solution. New York City has resolved, “To convert waste to clean energy as part of PlaNYC, the city’s ambitious sustainability agenda,” according to the Office of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and has issued an RFP to build a waste-to-energy facility on the site of the closed Fresh Kills landfill.
Westchester County does not need to export its nonrecyclable solid waste to another county, state or region. The facility makes this possible. Further, since many communities nearby still depend on long-range transport, improvements in recycling rates will not decrease the available feedstock, or profitability, of the facility. As Westchester County improves its recycling performance, capacity at the plant is made available for private haulers and others that need a place to dispose waste.
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 Wheelabrator, 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 waste-to-energy facility, which also accepts solid waste from private haulers, is equipped with a magnetic separation system that extracts ferrous metals. More than 12,600 tons of ferrous metal were recovered and recycled in 2011. A byproduct of the incineration process is ash, some of which is reused as landfill cover.
Opponents of waste-to-energy 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 waste-to-energy 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 waste-to-energy facility to dispose of nonrecyclable material. Since that time an Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan has been developed by DEF which 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 waste-to-energy 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” in the law to increase diversion rates.
New York state initially published its draft solid waste management plan in December 2010, called “Beyond Waste.” This is the planning document that will be used by the state and county for the next twenty years to guide Integrated Solid Waste Management Planning. Along with that, 70 percent of local solid waste planning units (LSWPs) are required to update their own solid waste management plans in the years surrounding the release of the plan. Local plans are intended to evaluate current solid practices in each unit, anticipated changes in population and waste generation and propose a 10-year local plan to work towards the state goals identified in “Beyond Waste.” Including both quantitative and qualitative goals, the overarching objective is to significantly reduce waste disposed.
The quantitative goal that the state has set is to reduce nonrecycled MSW (municipal solid waste) from 4.5 pounds per person per day (ppd) to 0.6 ppd by 2030. There are several qualitative goals:
- Minimize waste generation;
- Maximize re-use*;
- Maximize recycling*;
- Maximize composting and organics recycling;
- Advance product and packaging stewardship;
- Minimize waste disposal*;
- Create “green jobs”*;
- Maximize the energy value of materials management*;
- Minimize climate impacts of materials management*;
- Reemphasize the importance of local materials management planning;
- Minimize the need for long-range export of residual waste*;
- Engage all New Yorkers in sustainable materials management;
- Strive for full public participation, fairness and environmental justice;
- Prioritize investment in reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting over disposal;
- Maximize efficiency in infrastructure development;
- Foster technological innovation; and
- Continue to ensure that solid waste management facilities are designed and operated in an environmentally sound manner.
* Waste-to-energy technology furthers these goals.
Westchester County submitted an updated local solid waste management plan to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in December 2011 that met the long-term quantitative and qualitative goals of Beyond Waste. This plan hinges on accepting waste-to-energy as a beneficial reuse of waste. It counts solid waste generated in the county by mass after the incineration process. This includes ash from the waste-to-energy facility that is not beneficially reused and solid waste that is collected and exported by the private sector.
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.
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 waste-to-energy 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 waste-to-energy 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 waste-to-energy 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 waste-to-energy 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.
About 40 percent of all solid waste is organic: It is the largest component of the Westchester County’s recycled waste stream. In 2011, 236,909 tons of yard waste was collected for composting—about 51 percent of the total amount of recycled material. This is a staggering 500 pounds per resident per year. Organics composting was implemented to eliminate this material from the nonrecycled waste stream. The program has grown over time, including 12 municipalities that compost leaves on site and a separate program for communities to transfer their organic yard waste to large scale composters outside the county.
The county has become savvier about the proper management of organics and is now moving its emphasis from composting to source reduction. It has been promoting grasscycling (i.e., leaving grass clipping on the lawn) and backyard composting for several years.
The author is with the Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities, New Rochelle, N.Y.