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Where does your trash go?

Posted November 24, 2008 06:11 AM

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Ever thought about where all your garbage goes after it's pick up off the street? It goes here.

Garbage has become a hot topic in Newton. With the town abuzz about what to do with all of its waste, few people actually think about where it all goes. It just so happens that I visited the refuse incineration plant that all of Newton's garbage goes to. Here is that story:

I pulled off Route 20 into the unmarked driveway that belonged to Wheelabrator Technologies' Millbury facility-a plant that disposes of refuse from around the area, including what we ship from Newton. Trash you throw out onto your curb ends up in this facility. The only reason I knew that I was heading to the garbage-to-energy plant was because I was following a big, blue Allied Waste Services truck. The truck-outfitted with a yellow and black sign that read "caution" and nine blinking red, orange and yellow lights-cruised easily over a speed bump. My 1997 Toyota Camry had more trouble, its undercarriage scraping against the ridge of yellow pavement. Clearly this road was designed with trucks, not midsized sedans, in mind.

The Waste Services vehicle stopped on an in-ground scale for its initial weight measurement. (It would return after dumping its garbage to be weighed again and charged for the difference.) Not planning on dumping any of my own garbage here, I drove around and pulled up to a large, gray building, steam and smoke mixing into the already crepuscular air. The facility was made up of three multi-storied cubes, a series of four one-story cylindrical cooling towers and a 300-foot tall smoke stack. In the shadows of the building, the dump trucks that rumbled by looked as though they were made by Tonka.

The waiting room in the administrative building held clues to the principles of the company. A trophy case greeted visitors with nearly 30 artifacts: two keys to the city of Millbury for public service (1993, 1995), plaques for supporting various community sports teams, a thank-you note from the fire department, a statue of a cardinal from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, a plaque from the Millbury Council on Aging, numerous tablets and certificates from the Lion's Club and a 2002 Environmental Merit award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

An array of magazines and newspapers lay strewn atop the coffee table-Construction Equipment Guide, Power Engineering, Waste News, Earth Preservers and Business and Industry-demonstrating a confluence of environmental and business concerns.

Ronaldo Peña, a soft-spoken man with a dirty white hard hat (think Manny Ramirez's tar-covered batting helmet) and a neon yellow vest entered the room and greeted the group as our shift supervisor. Peña, seemingly unenthused about giving a tour, took us up through the facility with the impatience of a father trying to guide his family out of an airport. Our first stop in the waste incinerator-cum-power plant was the dumping pit-a room with the capacity to hold 6,000 tons of garbage.

"We can hold enough garbage in the pit to tide us over for weekends and holidays," Peña said. "Even when trucks stop delivering, we are burning garbage. We've got refuse burning 24/7."

Five stories above the piles of trash, a man sat in the most badass chair I have ever seen. Located inside a glass-encased deck that overlooked the pit, the chair connected to a metal track that slid forward and back like a rowing machine, allowing the occupant to move about and see every section of the room. A joystick controlling a 5,000-pound crane that plunged into the heap, each time lifting six tons of the garbage in two arms. The crane, which when open resembles a giant metallic spider, mixes the trash around before picking it up and dropping it all onto an incinerator-bound conveyer belt.

"You must be pretty damn good at winning stuffed animals," a touring student from Clark University said.

"Not yet," the operator said, swaying back and forth in the seat, his twisting wrists causing the crane to swing five feet from the glass directly in front of us and drop thousands of pounds of municipal waste. "I just started a couple of weeks ago."

We turned out of the room and walked down two flights of stairs. We soon discovered that the only smell more putrid than 1,500 tons of garbage was 1,500 tons of burning garbage. The aroma in the dimly lit hallway that surrounded the two gas-powered burners caused some members of the tour to put earplugs into their nostrils. Peña took us to a small window that looked into the belly of the incinerator. Through the thick glass I saw an expansive inferno of flaming refuse burning at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

This fire, fueled partially by Newton's' own trash, is used to boil water, turning it into steam, which travels into a turbine generator. The pressure of the steam is converted to electricity, producing 46,000 kilowatts of energy a day, 5,000 of which go to powering the entire plant while the other 41,000 are sold to the New England Power Company. It sells enough energy to power 41,000 homes. Metals in the garbage are sorted out by a magnet and recycled, and ash from the fire is brought to a landfill that Wheelabrator owns down the road. In the end, this process reduces the volume of incoming garbage by more than 90 percent.

As I retraced my steps through the building en route to the exit, I noticed a sign. "71 days without an accident," it read. Going a fifth of a year without an accident didn't seem so bad. Then I remembered the 5,000-pound crane and the 2,000-degree heat. I was glad to only be visiting.

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