Taking a step toward carbon neutrality, Google has purchased a large share of the 200,000 to 300,000 metric tons of carbon offsets that will be created through landfill waste-to-energy operations in Berkeley, South Carolina. The Berkeley Green Power Project, a joint venture with the Berkeley County Water & Sanitation, Blue Source and Santee Cooper, will capture and flare landfill gas to produce about 3 MW of electricity—enough to power 15,000 homes in the Southeast. The carbon offsets created by the project equal the emissions from electricity used by approximately 30,000 to 45,0000 US households annually.
This partnership is the most recent in a string of Google’s research and investment in renewable energy sources. In April, the company invested $38.8 million in two North Dakota wind farms developed by NextEra Energy Resources.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recently released a draft of its plan for a new direction in waste management, “Beyond Waste: A Sustainable Materials Management Strategy for New York.” The plan aims to shift the state’s waste management focus from the end of the waste chain closer to the beginning, more emphatically supporting waste reduction, reuse and recycling. It proposes stricter regulation for solid waste management, educational programs for businesses and individuals and a shift to manufacturer responsibility in the creation of products and packaging. If implemented, the DEC projects the plan could reduce the State’s waste production from 14 million tons annually to 2 million tons.
The DEC will be holding a series of public meetings about the plan throughout the month—New York City’s meeting will be June 8th at the Department of Public Health. DEC will be accepting public comments on the draft through July 6th.
Public hearing about the draft NYS Solid Waste Management Plan
June 8th, 5 pm
New York City Department of Health
125 Worth Street, 2nd Floor Auditorium, Manhattan
Yes, its official name is Mount Trashmore Park. Virginia Beach is home to one of the earliest conversions of a contemporary sanitary landfill to parkland in the US. The 165-acre site operated for many years as a landfill for waste originating from all over the east coast. High costs of filling and limited capacity led to the landfill’s closure by 1971. Guided by the vision of the director of Virginia’s Department of Health, conversion to parkland proceeded until 1973, when the site was opened to the public. The park now boasts 1.5 miles of trails, picnic grounds, playgrounds, basketball and volleyball courts, two man-made lakes for fishing and a 24,000-square-foot skate park. It is one of Virginia’s most popular parks, attracting approximately 1 million visitors annually.
Groundwater testing at the site has shown no impact from landfill operations. Landfill gas is collected by underground infrastructure–but unlike the Freshkills Park site, the gas at Mount Trashmore is not harvested for energy; it is released at synchronized intervals.
The New York Times features a long-term partnership between the National Park Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers to restore the rapidly disappearing salt marsh islands in Jamaica Bay, the 26-square-mile lagoon bordered by Brooklyn and Queens. Now comprising 800 acres altogether, the series of islands in the Bay spanned more than 16,000 acres a century ago. As part of a larger project to restore parts of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary, and especially Upper and Lower New York Bay, the Army Corps is importing rock, clay, sand, and silt dredged from the widening of the Panama Canal to shore up Jamaica Bay’s islands and help re-establish plant and animal habitat.
The article also offers a good, brief environmental history of Jamaica Bay, including early 20th century plans to make it into a major seaport and mid-20th century top-down conservation efforts that led to the creation of Gateway National Recreation Area, along the bay’s coast, in 1972. Still, over half of the bay’s salt marsh has been lost since the 1950s, and many migratory birds and fish species have disappeared. Contributors to environmental degradation have been contamination from waste treatment plants, historic landfill waste seepage, highway runoff and airplane fuel from jets at JFK Airport.
Current restoration work has started on one island, Elders Point, where the Army Corps estimates that 42 acres of wetlands have been restored, with another 34 acres expected by the end of the year. Another restoration effort on the island called Yellow Bar Hassock is being prepared.
The New York Times runs a very informative piece on the success and prevalence of waste-to-energy plants in Denmark, where they constitute the mainstream of garbage disposal and produce a substantial amount of the energy supply. Denmark hosts 29 of these facilities, which burn non-recyclable garbage to produce heat and electricity while filtering and capturing pollutants like dioxin and mercury rather than emitting them. Denmark has ten more plants on the way. There are about 400 across Europe.
The Times goes to some lengths—and produces a valuable information graphic—drawing comparisons between Denmark and the US, where there are 87 garbage-burning power plants, almost all of which were built at least 15 years ago. (There are none currently in construction, though there might be some on the horizon.) Reticence to invest in or build waste-to-energy plants in the US, according to an EPA official, is attributed to a host of factors: the relative abundance of exploitable property for landfills (the European Union restricts the creation of new landfill sites), fear of undercutting recycling and waste reduction programs and negative public perception. This despite federal research advocating for waste-to-energy as the most environmentally friendly waste management solution for non-recyclables.
NIMBYism is, of course, always a factor; many people do not want a garbage-burning plant in their backyard. The story notes that Danes have generally embraced the facilities, which are sited in neighborhoods of a range of income brackets and provide lower-cost energy to those neighborhoods. The Danish facilities mostly look like power plants, but given the baseline rigor of Scandinavian design, that’s still quite handsome (see image above). The Times also posts a sidebar on some European waste-to-energy plants that have grander architectural ambitions, presumably to appease lingering aesthetic concerns of local residents.
Through an Artist in Residence (AIR) Program at Recology San Francisco, artists are invited to spend four months working in studio space locate at the company’s 44-acre Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center, where most of San Francisco’s garbage and recyclables are waylaid and sorted before being sent to a landfill or recycling plant. Artists are asked to make use of materials recovered from the waste and recycling stream and to talk to school and tour groups about the reclamation of garbage through art. Pieces produced through the program are exhibited throughout the city as well as in the 3-acre sculpture garden adjacent to the transfer station, which also functions as a buffer between the transfer station and the abutting Little Hollywood neighborhood. Many of the plants in the garden were also rescued from the trash.
The AIR PRogram began in 1990 to promote reflection on art, waste production and the environment; over 80 artists have participated. 2010-2011 Artists in Residence are: Ben Burke and Joshua Short (both currently in residence), Val Britton, Zachary Royer Scholz, Suzanne Husky, Ferris Plock, Bill Russell and Niki Ulehla. Applications are accepted annually in August.
- A report in Plos One at the end of 2009 found that per capita food waste in the US is 50 percent greater than in 1974, now equivalent to 1400 calories per person per day. That totals 120 trillion calories anually.
- The EPA estimates that about 31 million tons of wasted food is thrown into landfills daily in the US. That is 40% of the country’s food supply.
- Each ton of food waste produces 4.2 tons of CO2 in addition to producing a large volume of methane, which is 25 times as harmful a greenhouse gas as CO2.
There are some unaddressed issues to consider in the graphic: contributing volumes of rotting produce and indigestible things like peels and roots, the idea of ‘feeding 200 billion people annually’ with our volume of food waste (to and from what level of nutrition?). But at the very least, it puts forth a powerful reminder to compost food scraps whenever possible–it might not be a wholesale remedy, but it seems like a start.
Mayor Thomas W. Danehy Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a 50-acre site with a similar history to the Freshkills Park site: clay deposits onsite attracted brick manufacturing uses in the 19th century; wet, low ground led to landfilling operations in the mid-20th century; local activism and political pressure led to late 20-th century landfill closure and, ultimately, to park construction.
Danehy’s landfill operations ceased in the 1970s, after which, the site was used as a staging area for subway line extension by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) through the 1980s. It was developed as parkland and opened to the public in 1990. Today, it is the largest park in the City of Cambridge and hosts softball fields, soccer fields, multi-use paths, two acres of thriving wetland habitat and public art installations by Mierle Laderman Ukeles (who is also creating public artwork for Freshkills Park). Unlike the Freshkills Park site, there is no landfill gas collection system at Danehy Park, though extensive geotechincal engineering has been performed to ensure public safety. Landfill gas emissions and settlement continue to be monitored onsite. The City of Cambridge has issued a nicely-illustrated brochure about the site’s history and systems.
Since part of our pitch about the enormity of the Freshkills Park site is that Fresh Kills was the world’s largest landfill during its operating peak, we’re often asked what holds that distinction today. Business Week runs down a worldwide list of landfills and garbage dumps (the latter connoting a lack of environmental controls and/or regulations); Waste & Recycling News has published a list of the US top ten landfills by annual tonnage (an equally interesting resource is their listing by state). The biggest of this whole lot is, of course, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the unregulated mass of waste floating in the North Pacific Gyre at 1-2 times the size of Texas. The question of which site qualifies as the largest land-based landfill worldwide is still open for some debate. The largest in the US is now either Puente Hills in Los Angeles County or Apex Regional Landfill in Las Vegas.
Important to note from the Business Week list that many of the largest landfills around the world now capture and use landfill gas for energy, reducing the environmental and public health impact of escaping methane and carbon dioxide. The landfill gas collection system at Fresh Kills, a forerunner of this practice, collects about 10 million cubic feet of landfill gas daily.
An informative early-1980s video primer on the development of the contemporary sanitary landfill, with Fresh Kills as the prime example. Some interesting footage of the landfill in operation.
Important note regarding the narrator’s concerns about the quality of drinking water in the vicinity of landfills: Staten Island’s water supply, like that of the rest of New York City, comes from upstate New York and not from the immediate environment. There is also a naturally occurring clay liner at the bottom of the landfill mounds at Fresh Kills, which keeps leachate from seeping into the water table (in sanitary landfills without clay liners, synthetic liners are now installed). A vast infrastructure is in place within the mounds at the site to collect and process both leachate and landfill gas–you can read more about it under the ‘About the Site’ tab on the Freshkills Park home page.