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Your Trash Can Is Not Bottomless, and Neither Are Massachusetts's Landfills

For people in three towns on Cape Cod, taking out the trash means bringing it to the curb. For the rest, it means bringing it a transfer station. 

This is the first story in our series, "Waste Goes Where? A look at our region’s trash troubles."  

On a misty weekday at the Barnstable transfer station, people were emptying their trash into the designated dumpster and their recycling bins into another one.

But where does the trash go from there?

Many were surprised to hear that it doesn’t go to the waste-to-energy plant in Rochester anymore. In fact, most of Cape Cod’s municipal solid waste now goes into landfills.

“I didn’t know that,” said Bob Adams of Centerville as he was cutting apart a box to put into the recycling. “I thought for sure they were using some of that garbage stuff to make energy. Now they’re just throwing it a landfill? That doesn’t seem right.”

His confusion is understandable. For 25 years nearly all of Cape Cod’s trash did go to the Covanta SEMASS waste burning plant in Rochester. (The exception was Bourne, which has its own landfill.)

Two years ago that SEMASS contract came up for renewal. Seven towns on Cape Cod signed up with someone new: ABC Disposal Service in New Bedford. Those towns are Barnstable, Dennis, Harwich, Mashpee, Orleans, Provincetown, and Wellfleet. The contracts save the towns a few dollars per ton of trash.

Six towns decided to stick with SEMASS: Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, Sandwich, Truro, and Yarmouth. Falmouth signed up to send its trash to Bourne. Bourne continued to take its own citizens’ trash, a service that saves the town about $1.5 to $2 million a year when you include all the income earned by the landfill.

But when they signed the contract, the leaders of the seven towns weren’t expecting that their trash would end up in a landfill. ABC Disposal promised a high-tech facility that would pull out recyclables and create a briquette out of the leftover trash that could be burned like coal. But the plant isn’t finished yet and the company filed for bankruptcy last month. Nobody from ABC wanted to be interviewed. They’ve promised customers that the facility will start operating next year. In the meantime, the trash is going into a landfill in Middleboro.

Bob Adams and plenty of others have been disappointed by the news.

“Now they’re putting it in somebody else’s dump?” he said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

The most pressing problem with landfills is that they are filling up. There are nine landfills in Massachusetts. Three of them will be full by 2020. Middleboro, Bourne, and the rest probably won’t live past 2035. And it’s not like people are rushing to build new ones. Not a single landfill has opened in Massachusetts since the mid-1990s. Industry leaders are looking into how feasible it will be to truck trash to landfills in Ohio or South Carolina. Nobody knows how much that will cost in a decade.

Phil Goddard helps run the Integrated Solid Waste Management Facility in Bourne, also known as the landfill. He’s the guy who understands the bookshelf full of government permits that stands floor to ceiling in the landfill’s office. He’s also a guy who doesn’t buy a lot of disposable stuff because that’s the stuff that’s filling up landfills.

“Think of it as your trash barrel in your kitchen,” he said. “You go and you step on it, to compact it, to get more in,” he said.

Like your foot smashing down the kitchen trash, landfill operators use huge tractors to compact the trash and make it smaller. But, also like your kitchen trash can, eventually there’s no more room in the landfill.

That’s why burning it has become popular.

At SEMASS in Rochester, huge trucks lumber in, 24 hours a day, loaded down with garbage. Three hundred will pass through the gate on any given day. At the gate, the landscaping has almost a country-club feel, with grassy embankments surrounding man-made ponds. A turtle suns itself on a rock and an egret stands nearby. Those ponds catch the rainwater from the compound so that it doesn’t flow into nearby cranberry bogs.

This is the place the rest of Cape Cod’s municipal solid waste goes.

Patti Howard is the plant’s biggest cheerleader. She takes children on daily tours of the plant and has the personality of your favorite 4th grade teacher. And just like Phil Goddard at the Bourne landfill, she says it’s better for SEMASS when people produce less trash. That means SEMASS can get a bigger market share.

“Right now I take about 20 percent of the state’s post-recycled trash,” she said. “Wouldn’t I love to be getting 50, 60, 80 percent of it. And hello Rhode Island. All you have is a landfill. When that’s filled, welcome to Massachusetts.”

SEMASS powers 75-thousand homes by burning trash. There is a downside. It creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. And environmentalists worry that the air-scrubbing smokestack can’t possibly take out all the toxins.

But environmentalists don’t love landfills either. They worry that landfills will eventually leak from the bottom like that bag of trash you left in the kitchen too long.

As it is, both of these trash solutions seem to be fading into history. Not only are landfills closing, the state stopped allowing new plants like SEMASS way back in 1990. Nobody has stepped forward to build a state-of-the art trash-burning plant since the state lifted the moratorium on them in 2010. 

So looking ahead a few years, where’s the trash going to go?

Greg Cooper of the state department of environmental protection has an answer: it depends on how well we do in meeting the goal of reducing our trash output.

The goal is to reduce trash in Massachusetts by 2 million tons by the year 2020. And here’s the good news: we’re already halfway there. We cut our trash output by a million tons between 2008 and 2014. We just have one million tons to go.

“If we achieve that goal, we should be online to have sufficient capacity to manage the remaining trash,” he said.

One more thing. Even SEMASS needs a landfill. Just like your fireplace, it produces ash. And right now, most of that ash is going to the Bourne landfill. That’s another reason to slow down how fast we’re filling it up.

“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.