By Car, Truck and Boat: Handling an Island's Trash

Dec 9, 2016

Don Hatch is a numbers man. He has to know the costs of what it takes to recycle his trash, or else he’s losing money. Because of that, he has to be creative.  

"Two years ago we were receiving $25 a ton for recycling," he said. "This year we are paying $40 a ton. So the recycling market is pretty poor right now. So we are just mixing everything and sending it off to a plant in Woburn."

Hatch is the District Manager at the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District in Edgartown. The facility receives recycled goods from the island’s Tri-Towns.

"Everything comes here — West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah," Hatch said. "And then we process it and mix it with ours. Because it's all part of the district, the four towns. Oak Bluffs and Tisbury do their own thing."

For Martha’s Vineyard, trash and recyclables have a unique journey. As an island community, transfer stations have to hire companies to ship most of their trash and recyclables off-island, and it isn’t cheap. Various materials are received and sorted at the Edgartown Transfer station daily. After sorting, the trash and recyclables have two destinations — Rochester or Taunton — to be used either as renewable energy, or sent to another recycling station.

At the Edgartown Refuse District larger items, like televisions, are tricky for residents to recycle. The more work it takes to recycle an item, the pricier it is for it to be dropped off at Complete Recycling in Taunton, or CRT. Even after charging for each item, the Refuse District still loses money for recycling items like old televisions.

"These are 40 dollars apiece, because we hand stack them. And when we get to their facility, we can’t dump them, we have to hand unload them," Hatch said. "It’s a very time consuming process, anywhere from $1,600 to $2,000 per container to dispose of all these."

For items that aren’t suitable to be sent to CRT in Taunton, they are brought to a large hangar-like building here at the Edgartown Refuse facility. This is where the action happens. Residents bring items like old couches to be crushed by a solid tire loader.

"We keep our construction material off to the side and fill one trailer and the trash in this area to go to SEMASS," Hatch said. "We have to separate it in the building. Once this trailer is full, we will bring another trailer in and put the wood in one trailer — the dirty wood."

It’s off-season now, so one trailer a day is enough, Hatch said. The trucks are owned by Greg Carroll of Bruno’s Roll Off and Carroll’s Rapid Transit. Since there’s not as much trash right now, Carroll has time to plan out future Steamship arrangements. Using a ferry to dispose of the island’s refuse is just another obstacle to tackle.

"I’m working on next summer’s reservations. We have to have predictability, and it's difficult obviously with trash. You don’t know how much is coming in every day," Carroll said. "But yet, you have plan it accordingly, so it doesn't sit around, so it gets transported quickly."

Carroll’s transit drivers are early birds. Using a Steamship Authority reservation, they drive to the SEMASS facility in Rochester almost every morning. Including the ferry ride, that’s 3 hours of travel time, round trip. And that doesn’t include loading and unloading.

"This time of year we go off island 6 days a week," Carroll said. "And between both transfer stations, we average three loads a day. Two on Saturdays in the summer time."

Each round trip costs Carroll $600. And there's only two places the material can go once it leaves the island -- to a landfill or to the SEMASS facility in Rochester. At SEAMASS, community outreach manager Patti Howard said the trash is used as fuel to make electricity.

"If you send it to a landfill, it decomposes and then produces methane," Howard said. "That's the chief reason why we are a more sustainable answer for your trash. We are actually a greenhouse gas deficient power source. So we are renewable energy in Massachusetts. The SEMASS facility itself provides 25 percent of the renewable electricity in Massachusetts, which is a significant portion of renewable energy so far."

SEMASS receives 1 million tons of trash each year. That’s 600,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power 75,000 homes. SEMASS’s trash incinerators work best by burning a specific recipe of trash, Howard said.

"Cardboard burns too hot and too fast," Howard said. "Banana peels, too low and too slow. People think, well what the heck left is there? There’s still a lot of stuff that's left, the film coatings on products that you buy, when it's safety wrapped… I can take that. Styrofoam products, I can take that."

SEMASS doesn’t want your recyclables. Glass doesn’t burn, metal doesn’t either. Instead, SEAMASS wants real trash to burn.

"I would encourage everybody to come and take a look at the facility," she said, "because I really think you come away with a renewed sense of wanting to reduce your own trash. And we think of it as a fuel."

Howard said the better islanders do recycling and sorting their trash, the better SEAMASS can do creating electricity from what's left.

Angela Scionti is a WCAI intern, based on Martha's Vineyard.