From Truck to Transfer Station Where Does All the Garbage Go?

From Truck to Transfer Station

 We've heard all the New Jersey jokes, and though we might be insulted, we've  probably told some ourselves. From Benjamin Franklin to George Carlin, New  Jersey has been the on the receiving end of such questions as, “Why does New Jersey have more landfills, and California have more lawyers” or declarations of “the Garden State... if you’re growing smokestacks.”  

 For centuries, New Jersey has been much maligned for its vital and lucrative  role as the dumping ground between New York and Philadelphia. Things have  changed though and during the past two decades, we've seen New Jersey,  sometimes known as “The Landfill of Opportunity,” take that nickname all the way to the bank.  

 In the early 1990s, the state of New Jersey created a near monopoly out of the  waste disposal business, disposing of all of its own garbage as well as that of  the states of New York and Pennsylvania. By 2000, privatization of waste  management had become the norm and garbage had become “a commodity to be traded anywhere,” according to Walter Porter, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of  Environmental Protection (NJDEP).  

 Porter explains that, “in 1996, state policy was stricken down in court as being an impediment to  interstate commerce. As a result, solid waste now travels in and out of New  Jersey on a daily basis.”  

 According to Porter, New Jersey disposal facilities are highly competitive with  other out-of-state facilities and as a result both the tipping fees (fees  charged to trash haulers to dispose of their trash, usually charged per ton)  and the cost for waste disposal have gone down in recent years. This is grown  advantageous to residents and the industry alike. Communities in New Jersey are  able to take advantage of low landfill rates in Pennsylvania as well as accept  money to handle garbage from New York.  

 New Jersey has collected an estimated 20 million tons of black, blue, and clear  bags. Once collected not many of us think about or even know where that trash  goes. More often than not, those who do, having endured the Jersey jokes, think  of New Jersey’s many landfills. They would be one-third right, today our garbage is dealt with  in one of three ways: transfer stations; resource recovery facilities or  landfills.  

 The Resource Recovery Facility

 Resource recovery facilities, also known as “co-generation” or “waste-to-energy plants,” are designed to burn solid waste but also turn the heat to electricity, leaving  a much smaller volume of ash to be buried. These facilities are not to be  confused with the pollution-creating incinerators of the 1970s.  

 These are much cleaner than the incinerators of yesteryear and under the  scrutiny of the NJDEP, it is believed that resource recovery facilities pose  low threats to human health and minimize the impact of trash generation.  

 Trucks bring the solid waste into a tipping area and unload the trash into a  large pit. A crane sorts out any inappropriate material, and then moves the  trash into a combustion chamber where it is burned. A boiler recovers the heat  generated from the combustion process, and the resultant steam is used for  electric power generation. Two types of ash are produced—bottom ash and fly ash. Bottom ash is the heavier glass and metal pieces that do  not burn and it accounts for about 75–90 percent of the ash created. Fly ash rises with hot gases and is captured by  emission control equipment in the stacks.  

 According to the NJEP, in addition to energy generation, this burning process  reduces the toxicity of organic compounds in the waste and reduces its volume  by as much as 90 percent, which makes the material safer to dispose of than  untreated hazardous waste. And the reduced volume allows landfills to use space  more efficiently.  

 One of the larger of these facilities is the Covanta Essex facility in Newark.  Opened in 1990, the facility serves the needs of 22 municipalities in Essex  County. According to Elizabeth Howard, a spokesperson for Covanta, “The plant is owned and operated under a long-term agreement with the Port  Authority of NY & NJ. The plant opened in 1990 and today it processes 2,800 tons per day of  municipal waste and generates approximately 500 million kilowatts of  electricity each year. Some of this electricity is sold to the local power grid  which provides power to 50,000 homes while the remaining electricity is used to  operate the plant itself.”  

 Next Stop: Transfer Stations

 Once the trucks, which hold a little over 10 tons of waste, are filled, they go  to the nearest transfer station. There the solid waste is processed and loaded  onto trucks or sealed rail containers for transfer to other states. There are  currently over 50 transfer stations in New Jersey.  

 The prevailing thought is that combining the loads of several individual waste  collections into single larger shipments saves communities money on labor and  operating costs. This in turn also reduces the total number of trips traveling  to and from the disposal sites. It is believed that this consolidation of  garbage reduces air emissions and energy use ultimately lowering the cost of  solid waste management services.  

 According to Midco Waste Systems, “One might think of transfer stations as a form of car-pooling for garbage.” This consolidation of refuse allows the company to transport larger volumes  with fewer trucks. Thus, Midco can minimize wear and tear on its vehicles and  the local roads, all the while creating lower emissions and increasing  efficiency, according to the company.       

 Waste is usually moved off site in a matter of minutes or hours, usually sorted,  but not always. From there it is compacted for long distance transfer to  landfills in six different states, but most likely is deposited in one of New  Jersey’s 14 landfills or one of Pennsylvania’s 47.  

 The Landfill

 What is a landfill? The NJDEP describes it as a “specially-designed depression in the ground for the disposal of solid waste…constructed so that it will reduce or prevent potential hazards to public health  and safety, as well as the environment.”  

 Over the last 30 years modern landfills been redesigned in an effort to prevent  the contamination and other environmental hazards attributed to older  landfills. These landfills were simply no more than large holes usually dug in  wetlands with very little consideration given to their long term effect.  

 Back then when rain or snow came in contact with solid waste in the landfill a  liquid called “leachate” was created. The more contact between water and waste occurred the more it  became contaminated. When landfills leaked, this contaminated liquid moved  throughout the soil and rock beneath the landfill polluting the groundwater or  nearby streams.  

 Today landfill construction standards have been updated to prevent this from  occurring. New landfills now require a clay foundation and impermeable lower  liners be installed to block the movement of leachate. This has been described as “bathtub within a bathtub” with the second bathtub providing double insurance that liquids won’t be able to leak from the landfill.     Today it is further required that a leachate collection system be constructed  and that groundwater around the landfill be monitored with monitoring wells. At  the end of each day soil and other materials such as broken glass or oily  soils, are used to cover the garbage packed into the landfill. This is done to  combat odors, rodents, birds and other pests. This “cover” also absorbs rainwater and helps reduce the amount of leachate resulting from  rain or snowfall.  

 New and Improved

 According to the Robert Aiello, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection  Agency (EPA), “Many landfills are also constructed with separate cells or compartments that  help with maintenance and environmental protection.” Additionally, when solid waste in the landfill begins to “break down” or decompose a gas called methane gas is created.  

 Gravel layers are added to the landfill to allow the gas to escape from the  waste to the surface through plastic piping. In the past the gas was “flared” or burned to prevent odors and explosions. Today the gas produced by landfills is collected and can be used to heat boilers  and generate heat and light for certain landfill operations. On average landfills  are in use between 20 and 30 years.  

 When a landfill has reached its full it is “capped.” This involves layering clay, a liner, soil and vegetation on top. Landfills are  now designed with possible end uses in mind. Once closed, these landfills can  be converted into golf courses, shopping centers, malls and parks. There are  578 landfills in New Jersey with twelve of them still in operation but that is  about to change.  

 Buried in the Meadowlands?

 One most famous story of a “local landfill does good” is that of the Meadowlands Stadium. Carrying on that legacy, in May 2012,  Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) joined the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) and SunDurance Energy to  dedicate the Kearny Landfill Solar Farm, the first solar project on a  state-owned landfill. The 3-megawatt installation is part of PSE&G’s Solar 4 All™ program and was built on a 13-acre capped section of the closed NJMC 1A  landfill.  

 The project is a joint effort between PSE&G, the NJMC, which manages the landfill, and SunDurance Energy, an Edison-based  solar developer, that oversaw the construction. The project was also funded by  an $8.5 million New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) American Recovery  and Reinvestment Act State Energy Program grant awarded to the NJMC  

 According to PSE&G’s president, Ralph LaRossa, the installation of more than 12,500 solar panels on  the closed landfill illustrates how clean energy projects can breathe new life  into otherwise unusable sites. “This project opens a new chapter in New Jersey lore,” LaRossa said. “These landfills have sat dormant for years, and have been a familiar site to  northern New Jersey residents for as long as I can remember. This project  updates that story, showing how 21st century technology coupled with  public-private partnerships can return even the most unusable space to a  productive purpose.”  

 Additionally, PSE&G's Kearny Landfill Solar Farm joins three other PSE&G Solar 4 All projects (in Linden, Trenton and Edison) that utilize brownfields.  (The EPA defines a brownfield as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated  by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or  contaminant.”)     Another brownfield solar farm is currently in development on PSE&G property in Hackensack. Power from the Kearny Meadowlands Landfill Solar Farm  flows directly to the electric grid for the benefit of all PSE&G electric customers.  

 PSE&G‘s Solar 4 All is a $450 million program to develop 80 megawatts of solar  capacity. Divided into two segments, the program first consists of developing  more than 20 centralized solar installations and includes the Kearny Landfill  Solar Farm. In addition to installing up to 40 megawatts of pole-attached solar  panels in neighborhoods on utility poles in PSE&G’s service territory.  

 According to LaRossa this project is “helping New Jersey reach its renewable energy goals and increasing the state’s reputation as a national leader in solar development.”  

 From now on when you're rudely awakened by the sound of a garbage truck, you now  know that your garbage is going off to a better place. And even if the New  Jersey jokes never go away, the Garden State will still be laughing all the way  to the bank.   

 J.M. Wilson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Associate Editor Liam P. Cusack contributed to this article.  


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