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Our Trash: To Bury or To Burn?

The Bourne landfill accepts most of the ash produced by the SEMASS waste-to-energy plant.
Courtesy Phil Goddard
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The Bourne landfill takes most of the ash from the SEMASS plant.

Most of Cape Cod’s municipal solid waste goes to landfills now. The rest is burned at CovantaSEMASS in Rochester, Massachusetts. That begs a question.

Which is better for the environment, burning trash, or burying it?

It turns out to be a kind of Sophie’s Choice for environmentalists.

Landfills, they say, will eventually leak. Residents in Charlton, Massachusetts, recently accused the landfill in nearby Southbridge of contaminating their drinking wells. There are no private drinking wells near the Bourne landfill, managers say.  

“Unfortunately, incineration, is in my opinion, no better than landfilling,” said Sylvia Broude, the executive director of Toxics Action Center in Boston. “Because incineration creates a landfill in the sky.”

Broude said she’s concerned that burning trash releases toxic pollution into the air that includes heavy metals, ultra-fine particulate pollution, and dioxins. She’s also worried that toxins end up in the ash that gets put into landfills, creating a kind of toxic coffee grounds for rainwater to percolate through.

SEMASS representatives argue that through technology, they can grab toxins like mercury out of the smoke before it goes up the stack. They say that they fully comply with federal and state regulations, which certify that the ash is safe to put into landfills.

“Industry is always going to claim that incinerator ash is not toxic,” Broude responded. “It took centuries of knowledge that lead was toxic before we could eliminate lead from gasoline in this country.”

SEMASS also argues that putting out a bit of carbon dioxide from their smokestack is better than all the methane that landfills produce, only some of which can be captured.

What does the state department of environmental protection have to say about the matter?

“We do not have a preference on whether it goes to incinerators or to landfills,” said Greg Cooper of the DEP.

There’s one thing everyone can agree on. We should make less trash. 

“Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.