Yesterday I visited the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation in Johnston, RI. I met with Recycling Program Manger Krystal Noiseux, who showed me around the landfill/Materials Recycling Facility and spoke with me about the daily operations at the complex, the renovation of the MRF, and the waste-management issues Rhode Island faces looking ahead. The following posts will detail my visit and everything I learned about what happens to the trash we make in this small state.
We began the tour at the deposit stations for materials that can be repurposed or recycled but are not meant to go into your blue and green bins. There is a station set up for books, clothes and shoes, cooking oil, scrap metal, scrap lumber (unfinished), televisions and computers, hazardous waste and more. Residents can come during normal hours of operation to deposit these materials (hazardous waste deposits can only be done on certain Saturdays by appointment: www.rirrc.org/ecodepot). About one quarter of the tires pictured above can be repurposed. The rest will be shipped to a tire-to-energy plant in Connecticut where they will be incinerated, generating electricity. The ashes are then shipped back to RIRRC where they will go into the landfill. I was surprised to such a variety of materials are accepted. Each is sent to a different company in another location for a wide range of “next life” purposes.
Next we headed over to the commercial composting site. Currently, RIRRC only accepts leaf and yard debris. They process nearly 40,000 tons every year. Rhode Island residents can come and purchase this “class A” compost for $30 per cubic yard. So all you locals who are dreaming up garden plans for this spring, take note! There is a half yard minimum requirement and you have to be able to carry it away in your own vehicle, but RIRRC will help you load it. Some of the compost is used at the central landfill for operational purposes. The rest goes to New England Organics, an industrial organics and minerals recycling company.
The photo above shows a new area being dug out to become landfill. This stop along the tour left a big impression on me. The ‘pit’ seemed much shallower than what I would have imagined. Krystal explained that it can’t be dug too deep because it must be above ground water levels. The next phase of preparation in this area will include laying down layers of plastic (to seal in the garbage) and pipes that will divert any water that sinks through the trash carrying harmful substances (leachate), from seeping into the ground. When the landfill is full, a synthetic cap and a soil layer will close it off.
As Krystal described this to me, it seemed logical that measures must be taken to keep garbage in all its hazardous forms separate from the environment. But I never knew that these kind of protective layers were placed between the trash and the earth. I always imagined a landfill as a simple hole in the ground filled with garbage. This new image I have of a landfill is more bizarre. Our garbage is being entombed in the ground. This is the best kind of “away” that we have come up with—an effort to keep our waste away from our water, our soil, our air, and our wildlife.
Krystal said that she begins her tours by asking visitors whether they think a landfill is good for the environment or bad for the environment. The visitors always answer that it’s bad. As the tour progresses, visitors begin to see that it is not the landfill that is harming the environment, it’s the trash—our trash.
This waste-to-energy plant was the next stop on the tour. It converts the gas produced by decomposing garbage into electricity. The facility (operated by Broadrock Renewable Energy) has been in operation since 1996. I have heard of facilities that convert landfill gas into electricity but I had no idea there was one in operation here in Rhode Island! 65% of the gas that is siphoned off from the landfill is converted. The rest is flared. The current facility generates enough electricity to power approximately 21,000 homes.
While RIRRC works to expand the central landfill, a new plant is being built that will more than double generating capacity from 20 megawatts to 47.6 megawatts. The new facility will be the second-largest landfill-gas-to-electric power plant in the country. It will generate enough electricity to power about 38,000 homes.
We then made our way up the landfill. As Krystal said we were “driving on trash”. Landfill gas collection pipes stick up out of the landfill. Krystal explained that landfill gas is typically comprised of methane (50-55%), carbon dioxide (45-50%), and trace amounts of other gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide. Methane is considered the most potent of the greenhouse gasses produced in a landfill.
As we ascended the landfill, I began to see the seagulls. We came upon the area where trash was being spread. Thousands of gulls swarmed the trash and the workers. A recent surge in the number of gulls has led RIRRC to approve new measures to fend off the birds, including pyrotechnics, propane cannons, shooting, and using fake seagull carcasses to scare them away.
A composting conference and tradeshow happening this Monday will address the importance of getting food scraps out of the landfill. Less rotting organic material in at the landfill will mean less landfill gas and fewer gulls.
I learned that daily operations at the landfill include compacting (crushing) and covering waste with several inches of soil or other cover material to reduce odor and litter (that can get picked up by the wind) as well as control pests. A cross section of the landfill would show layer upon layer of trash and cover. Krystal explained that many people think the central landfill is a dump, but there is a big difference between a dump (an open pit of trash) and a sanitary landfill, which is really an engineering marvel designed to protect the environment from our garbage. Though the trash is covered quickly, while it is being laid down it can blow around in the wind. Litter crews collect the sailing Styrofoam cups and plastic bags off the face of the landfill and surrounding areas.
Since 2010, areas of the RIRRC grounds have been planted with native shrub species (steeplebush, bayberry, and meadow-sweet), trees (eastern white pine and eastern red cedar), and seeded with native grasses and wildflowers to attract native wildlife species. RIRRC employees volunteer their time to monitor wildlife activity. Deer, coyote, mink, bald eagles, turkey, hawk and various other song and water bird species have been observed. The central landfill has been Wildlife at Work certified since 2011.
The last stop on my tour was the Materials Recycling Facility. As I have mentioned before, the facility is undergoing a major renovation. A new single stream recycling system will be up and running on Earth Day (April, 22). RIRRC will then launch a public education campaign shortly there after. Rhode Islanders will no longer need to separate their paper from their metals and plastics. Specific information about newly accepted recyclable will be sent out in the mail and posted online. Currently, the majority of Rhode Island communities are only recycling an average of 24% of their waste through curbside collection. When you factor in compost, textiles, and metals, the average municipal recycling rate is only 31.8%. The goal of the single stream system is to bring that average up by 20-40%.
When the new system goes live, several more kinds of plastics will be recycled (currently RI only accepts plastic bottles and jugs). The new state of the art facility includes optical scanners that will target and redirect specified materials with a blast of air. Watch this video produced by Waste Management to see how single stream works.
RIRRC charges per ton for trash dumped at the landfill, but it is free to bring recyclables to their recycling facility. There is no washing, melting, or pulping happening at RIRRC. The facility is set up only to sort and bale metals, plastics and paper to be sold as commodities to be made into new products. 50% of the profits from those sales are shared with the municipalities.
Krystal Noiseux said that a common misconception about waste management in Rhode Island is that we are ‘behind the curve’. I admit that was definitely my impression before visiting the complex. To my surprise, Rhode Island was the first state in the nation to pass mandatory recycling legislation in 1986. RIRRC has only ever collected the recyclables that they can market to companies that will process them.
I was impressed by the many measures in place to divert waste from the landfill at RIRRC, the gas-to-electricity plant, and the effort to support wildlife habitats on site. I think it’s important to have an understanding of how our personal waste is handled. Unfortunately I think there is a general lack of appreciation for the technology and people at work in the sanitation industry in this country. I think everyone should visit his or her local landfill and recycling center to see first hand what engineering marvels they have become. However, I want to stress that these last several posts aren’t meant to make us feel better about producing trash. The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ system enables our growing consumption of disposables. The monetary cost of waste management is hidden to most consumers. What would it be like if we had to pay by the pound or by the piece of trash we produce? What if waste management services didn’t exist? Since visiting RIRRC I’ve been thinking about the fact that it’s impossible ‘get rid of’ our trash—we can only relocate it. I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like if we were all responsible for storing our own waste.