Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Great Recycling Plant and Landfill Tour--Atlantic County, NJ

It's apparently common for people to question whether our recyclables actually get recycled, especially now that the "single stream" protocol has us throwing paper and bottles/cans all together. Placing recyclables at the curb, we are the equivalent of workers feeding raw materials into a giant factory whose location and eventual products are unknown. Adding to the mystery, according to my notes, the state no longer inspects sorting plants nor tracks where recyclables go. The industry has self-reported for the past eight years. To imbue the act of recycling with more meaning and confidence, it would help if we knew where it all goes and what it becomes.

A previous post documented where Princeton's recyclables go, at least for sorting. This one documents another tour, organized last month by Sustainable Jersey, of a sorting plant in Atlantic County, NJ, and the nearby landfill. Sorting plants use increasingly sophisticated machinery to sort paper from plastic, metals from glass, and then bale it all up to sell to companies that will make use of the recyclables.

The tour was led by Rick Dovey, president of Atlantic County Utilities Authority, who told us many stories and fielded our many questions. He deals not only with Atlantic County's solid waste, but its liquid waste as well--the unlikely highlight of the tour that will be posted separately. For someone who gets dumped on daily by a whole county, Rick Dovey is remarkably upbeat.

Sorting plants are filled with conveyor belts and bins. This one's run by Recommunity, a national company. The county's been recycling since 1978. Like most sorting facilities these days, among plastics they accept #1-7, flower pots and larger items like tubs, trays and pails. They are not thrilled to get styrofoam, nor plastic bags, but have little choice but to deal with whatever comes to the plant.

Plastic bags end up in the bin (labeled "metal only"), and do get sent to another plant for recycling.

Aluminum trays are not sought after, but are sorted out and recycled. They are a lower grade of aluminum, so can't be mixed with aluminum cans.

Bales of sorted recyclables get neatly stacked at the far end of the plant. Aluminum and cardboard are the most valuable. Glass is hard to market, in part because it now finds its way into few containers other than for beer and wine.

When the financial markets collapsed back in 2008, the recycling markets dropped precipitously, going from a record high to a record low in just 45 days. Rather than haul unsold recyclables to the landfill, Rick stockpiled the bales outside for several years, selling them to recycling companies as markets recovered.

Note: There are many videos showing the impressive process of sorting single stream recyclables. Two can be found at this previous post.

Next stop was the top of the landfill nearby. The county's economy went from logging in the 1800s to pigfarms, and then to quarrying gravel and sand. The quarries then became attractive spots to dump garbage, including toxics that in a nearby landfill nicknamed Price's Pit are still being dealt with today, at great expense.

The view from the top of Atlantic County's mishmash mountainette is extraordinary. Not surprisingly, this is the highest point in the county. In his ongoing push to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and take advantage of today's energy, Rick is trying to get permits to put solar panels on the side of the landfill.

Only 30-40% of the methane produced by the landfill is captured in a system of underground tubes, and used to generate electricity. Some of the energy produced can't be fed into the grid, because the transmission lines going to the landfill don't have enough capacity. Efforts to get the capacity increased have been unsuccessful.

So, what you have is a landfill that's producing methane (the equivalent of natural gas), most of which seeps up into the atmosphere to speed global warming, while efforts to use the rest to generate electricity are being hampered.

Because of this inefficiency, the utility authority wants to take things to the next level and partner with the Princeton-based energy company NRG to start a syngas project to convert trash directly into energy. They've been waiting four years for state regulators at the Department of Environmental Protection (I accidentally typed "Protraction") to approve the project.

One recurring theme in environmental work is that any effort to shift from the unsustainable, climate-changing status quo to a sustainable future will have to persevere through innumerable obstacles large and small. Some of those obstacles will come in the form of environmental regulations meant to protect us, but which in practice also dangerously delay our shift to renewable energy. The good news, though, is that just outside of Atlantic City, we got a tour of a well-run recyclables sorting plant, and a landfill that's at least utilizing some of its legacy of methane.

And more good news about utilizing today's energy awaited us "tour-ists" at an equally unlikely location, the Atlantic City Wastewater Treatment Plant. (to be continued)

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