The bad news is, Americans generate trash. Lots of it. Now, the good news: An increasing number of municipalities are finding ways to turn that refuse into fuel, reusable material and revenue.
Amid the convenience of disposability and the obsolescence of older products that have been swept into commercial oblivion by newer, better things, the residents and businesses throw away almost 1 billion tons of trash. That’s 2 trillion pounds, for those keeping score.
The traditional municipal paradigm offers two options for the disposal of that garbage: burn it or bury it. Combustible rubbish is loaded into kilns and incinerated. What cannot be burned is layered into landfills and covered with dirt. Neither process is satisfactory, and their cumulative effects have resulted in methane-producing mountains, air and water pollution, plus complaints from citizens assaulted by odor and the eyesore.
Some landfill operators have rescued a portion of the byproducts of accumulated trash by piping and burning the methane to heat nearby buildings and other facilities. Cities, counties and states have also launched programs to encourage recycling, with varying degrees of success.
Certainly much progress has been made to conserve resources in recent decades, but the nation still manages to convert only about one-third of its disposable trash into energy or recycled material.
Enter Resource Recovery Parks, which are municipally or privately operated venues for the receipt, recycling or disposal of garbage. Dubbed with ambitious names like “zero waste,” “nil to landfill” and “waste to wealth,” some resource recovery programs boast rates of up to 90 percent recovery of waste material for fuel or reuse.
A full municipal garbage truck may contain materials worth $200 or more, after the contents are sorted, bundled and shipped to willing buyers. Whether performed by machine or by hand, the recovery process at these dedicated sites is generally the same. The procedure begins curbside, where trash pickup is carried out by the city or a subcontracted entity.
The trucks proceed to the RRP and deposit their loads on the tipping floor, where large or dangerous items such as tires, mattresses and propane tanks are removed for separate processing.
The remaining material is fed into a shredder or flail mill, where the components are chopped up. Magnets remove the ferrous material and electrical eddy currents separate the aluminum items.
Organic material is separately processed for use as compost or fertilizer. The remaining product passes over sizers that allow small grit, glass and rocks to fall through the holes. These are the only elements to be taken to the landfill, and they may comprise as little as 10 to 15 percent of the total.
Air jets separate the lighter combustible material, which is compacted, bundled and taken to the power plant where it will be used to fuel furnaces to power boilers for steam energy. The reusable metal and plastic is sold to private vendors for recycling.
Doing it first and doing it right: Ames, Iowa
Ames, Iowa, was the first municipality in the nation to establish a resource recovery center without the aid of state or federal dollars — and the first city in the world to own such a facility. “We did it all through bonds,” said Lead Operator Robert Weidner. Ames’ Smart Trash Resource Recovery System will celebrate its 40th birthday this summer.
“Everything is mechanical,” said Weidner, who has worked at the center for 34 of those years. “We have gone through three renovations” from its bootstrap beginning to the present facility, which recycles or reuses more than 75 percent of the 200 tons of trash it receives daily.
Many similar facilities through the United States are privately owned and operated, and thus must make a profit to survive. The Ames center, however, doesn’t labor under that fiscal requirement. “We’re not here to make money,” said Weidner. “We’re just here to do what is right for the environment and for our people.”
The center serves all of Story County, which boasts about 90,000 residents, and derives its revenue through reasonable, fee-based services: $22 per pickup truckload of trash; no charge for up to 5 gallons of waste oil and only 25 cents per gallon thereafter; property assessments, which are currently approximately $9.25 per $1,000; and 20-year contracts with other communities in the county.
City and county leaders, moreover, have enacted several cost-saving measures to reduce the tax load on its citizens.
- The city does not provide trash pickup. Instead, residents are encouraged to contract with one of several available local garbage hauling services.
- The county does not maintain a landfill; rather, the center uses the landfill situated in adjoining Boone County.
- Citizens are not required to segregate recyclables from their other garbage, thus saving extra hauling trips and reducing the program’s carbon footprint.
- The center produces all the refuse-derived fuel from its combustibles that the city’s power plant can use, thus saving municipal fuel costs.
- The center does not maintain outpost deposit sites; all trash must come directly to the center’s singular location.
Tips for getting started
What Ames has learned from four decades of experience can be applied by any municipality considering the option of establishing a resource recovery center or park.
- Community support is vital for the success of such a venture. “Public opinion is tremendous,” said Weidner, “and public input is also important.”
- Set the parameters of facility operations early in the process. Ames’ center was so successful “our problem was with people bringing in everything.”
- Figure on a never-ending promotional process to train and educate the public about its part in the resource recovery process. Even after four decades, Ames conducts outreach through public access television, flyers and cable television commercials. Ames is a college town, so incoming students must be reminded annually that “their trash can is their recycle bin.”
- Assess the availability and adequacy of private enterprises and neighboring municipalities and consider public-private partnerships and memorandums of understanding to save operational costs.