Converting waste into watts - one way to manage Boston's trash

The city of Boston is over a barrel - a garbage barrel. But if a proposed plant to burn Boston's garbage to generate steam and electricity is built, trash barrels are likely to become much less of a problem in New England's largest city.

And the plant may even help to reduce dependence on another costly problem that comes in barrels - imported oil.

With both the city dump and incinerator closed down for good and with garbage dumps in nearby communities nearing capacity, Boston is facing the prospect in the years ahead of not having any place to dump its trash.

''The average citizen puts his garbage out Monday morning at 7 o'clock and as long as it disappears, he assumes that all is well. The truth is that in a few years all is not going to be well,'' says Joseph F. Casazza, Boston's public works commissioner.

City garbage expenditures have more than doubled in the past decade, with the disposal cost for each ton of Boston garbage increasing from $5.78 to $19.25, according to Boston's Municipal Research Bureau. Residents throw away about 220, 000 tons of rubbish a year.

The cost increases came as the city shifted to private contractors after its incinerator was shut down by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1975. The city's only landfill dump was closed in 1980. Since then, private contractors have been trucking Boston's garbage to landfill sites outside the city limits. Such sites are becoming increasingly crowded and expensive. Last year overall disposal costs in Boston jumped by 36 percent.

But Mr. Casazza has a solution. He is prepared, quite literally, to fight garbage with fire. The idea is simple:

Burn the garbage and convert the heat into usable energy. The energy, to be sold as steam or electricity, helps defray the costs of operating the massive furnace system. In addition, the system reduces reliance on oil imports, even as it helps handle the problem of overflowing land-fill waste sites, which pose hazards to the environment.

Boston currently is negotiating a 20-year contract with Browning-Ferris Industries and Air Products and Chemicals Inc., to build and operate a $120 million plant in South Boston. The plant would burn more than 1,000 tons of garbage a day and potentially contribute steam to the city's downtown heating loop and/or electricity to the Boston Edison power grid.

According to Clifford Jessberger, president of the energy systems division of Houston-based Browning-Ferris Industries, the Boston plant would be able to reduce to a sterile ash most of the city's annual 220,000 tons of refuse. The ash - approximately 5 to 10 percent of the original bulk - would then be dumped in an environmentally safer, and much smaller, landfill facility.

Commissioner Casazza sees the proposal as ''Boston's only chance to solve Boston's long-range solid waste problem within its own boundaries.''

For the most part, the technology is not new. An estimated 150 so-called ''waste-to-energy'' plants are operating throughout Western Europe, and another 80 plants are operational in Japan.

In addition, waste-to-energy plants already have been built in 56 American cities and are in the advanced planning stages in 41 others. An additional 94 communities are seriously considering constructing such plants, according a report by the Washington-based United States Conference of Mayors.

The push toward waste-to-energy plants began in the US about a decade ago with great fanfare about converting garbage into gold. The emphasis of many projects was more on producing the gold - energy - than on getting rid of the garbage.

Some plants were designed to process the garbage into ''resource derived fuels,'' which would be sold to industry as a cheap alternative to oil. Of the first 12 such plants built, all but one have experienced serious technical or economic problems, according to the US Department of Energy.

The majority of first-generation waste-to-energy plants in the US followed the proven European technolgy of burning the garbage to create steam.

One of the most successful US pioneers was the Refuse Energy Systems Company (RESCO), which introduced Swiss technology in a plant in Saugus, Mass. The plant , similar to the one proposed for Boston, burns up to 1,200 tons of garbage a day while producing steam for a nearby General Electric plant. The RESCO plant opened in 1975 and became profitable in 1979.

Industry specialists note that the US market for waste-to-energy plants is just beginning to develop.

"Every major city in the US eventually is going to need a resource recovery plant and, in the next 10 to 20 years, will probably purchase one," says Mike Cooper of the National Solid Wastes Management Association.

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