Riverton — A lost resource

Riverton — A lost resource

William Saunders

Saturday, April 23, 2016

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In its March 13, 2015 editorial, ‘Garbage in Costa Rica: Another Commission, CentralAmericaData.com wrote: "A year into its tenure, the Government of Costa Rica has announced the formation of a joint committee to study a national plan for recycling and recovery of waste. In another grim example of the difficulties faced by rulers in Costa Rica to make executive decisions on public works, existing plans — which are currently on hold, and will probably disappear — for investment in the waste management and recycling sector, including generating power from them, due to the fact that the current Government has decided to start from scratch with the formation of a committee to ‘develop strategies’ on the topic. As if there were not already enough information on this issue, and as if the respective participants and those responsible had not expressed themselves sufficiently in this respect. It is the same case with the commission on energy introduced by this government." (sic)

Déjà vu? Governments, particularly in developing countries, seem to find it always necessary to appoint committees. Despite this handicap, Central America has a plastics recycling industry. In 2014, the Guatemalan plastic recycling industry exported to 25 international markets, including Costa Rica, recording more than US$42 million in income.

And what about Jamaica, where much of our plastic material is found on the beaches?

The prime minister recently announced Government’s intention to divest the Riverton "dump". Perhaps with this announcement there will follow a new committee to study the proposed divestment.

Landfill vs dump

We frequently refer to Riverton as a dump, and not as a landfill site, perhaps because it is indeed operated more as a dump than a landfill. At a dump, the garbage is simply dumped on the site and allowed to accumulate without further treatment. On the other hand, a municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill employs a disposal procedure that involves dumping the waste, followed by spreading by a dozer and compaction by the dozer and/or a landfill compactor. The compacted waste is then covered with soil or some alternative, typically to a depth of about one foot. The cover soils are the most fundamental control to achieve good landfill performance. Cover soil must completely cover the waste and steps must be taken to ensure it remains covered in all areas other than the active face, which should be kept as small as practicable.

Over time, the MSW decomposes mainly by bacterial action to generate landfill gases (LFG). LFG is the natural by-product of the anaerobic decomposition of biodegradable waste in landfills. LFG is a complex mixture of gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, and trace constituents of volatile organic compounds (VOC), hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), and hydrogen sulfide. These pollutants raise concerns for acute toxicity, chronic hazards, and risks associated with improperly managed landfills.

As materials in the MSW decompose, void spaces are created in the waste matrix which then compresses under the weight of overlying layers. From these voids, LFG migrate from the subsurface to the atmosphere via diffusion and advection mechanisms through the soil pores, fractures, gaps and defects in the cover materials. In most instances this leakage occurs at the periphery where the compaction may not be as dense as in the interior. Cover material such as marl, which is predominantly limestone, is extremely porous and hence leakage of LFG from compacted marl cannot be avoided.

Auto ignition is a commonly recognised risk associated with LFG. Ignition can also occur because a smoker accidentally drops a lighted match or cigarette butt. Because there are so many people involved in the "informal recycling sector" it is difficult to avoid fires especially during the hot, dry seasons. This is not, however, to say that the most recent fire was not deliberately set; however, the phenomenon as described can and does occur.


In July 2005, after the then National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) board and chairman were dismissed due to irregularities uncovered by the contractor general, a new board was constituted and mandated by the then Minister of Local Government Portia Simpson Miller to, among other priorities, specifically:

* Become compliant with procurement procedures established by the Office of the Contractor General.

* Restore the NSWMA to its core function as a regulatory authority and not a garbage collection agency.

The NSWMA has a number of subsidiaries — Metropolitan Parks and Markets, Western Parks and Markets, Southern Parks and Markets, and North Eastern Parks and Markets — each servicing different parishes. Each subsidiary, as well as the NSWMA, operates a fleet of collection trucks, in addition to contracting private sector collection services. A necessary step toward returning the authority to its core functions is the need to wind up these subsidiaries and placing all collection operations in the hands of private contractors.

Some time prior to the appointment of a new Board, the NSWMA constructed at its Riverton site, an administrative building, a recycling centre, a maintenance shed, and a platform scale complete with a building to house the scale. They were never used.

One is not sure of the purpose of the scale, as contractors are not paid by the weight of garbage collected but paid a fee based on the zone. However, the new collection contracts, proposed by the new 2005 board, stipulated that fees would be based on the weight of MSW collected and zones would be defined in accordance with STATIN boundaries, since there was demographic information for those areas.

Privatisation of the landfill site would come later; however, the immediate focus would be on "waste diversion", which simply means to maximise the collection of recyclable materials. Fact is that this is currently being done by the horde of "informal recyclers" seen walking behind the MSW spreader dozers, as well as the multitude of people who stop many of the trucks before they enter the site.

Untapped resources

It is well known that:

* Recycling one tonne of old newspapers saves 19 trees. Old newspapers can be used to make fruit and egg trays to replace the plastics now used.

* Some 30 per cent less energy is used to make glass from recycled crushed glass (cullet) versus manufacture from silica.

* A 74 per cent energy reduction is achieved by reusing steel cans, and every tonne of recycled steel cans saves 1.36 tonnes of iron ore.

* A 33 per cent energy reduction is seen when new products are made from recyclable plastics. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is used to make drain pipes and plastic conduit, low density polyethylene and polystyrene used to make strong plastic poles, and PET bottles used to make a variety of products including sleeping bags and carpets.

* Ninety-five per cent less energy is used to make new aluminium cans out of old ones. Throwing away a single aluminium can is like pouring out six ounces of gasoline.

Besides these factors, "garbage to energy" projects are extremely viable ways to mitigate the volume of waste generated by households. Over the years, Government has been getting expressions of interest as well as firm proposals for waste-to-energy projects. One of these was submitted in 1992, and envisaged power production at 40MW maximum based on 1,500 tons of solid waste each day, reducing the volume of solid waste requiring landfilling by 80-85 per cent. Projected employment was 150 people.

The project was based on the company assuming total responsibility for collection and sorting of the MSW at the same cost as was being incurred at that time. It should be noted that in all privately owned waste-to-energy projects operating worldwide, the power plant operator is paid a "tipping fee" to utilise the garbage. In Jamaica’s case, however, the investors were only requiring that they be allowed the responsibility for collection at the same rates that were currently paid. In addition, to help offset the high operating costs associated with waste-to-energy plants, the investors proposed selling the ferrous, non- ferrous and glass recovered, estimated as 25,000 tons per year.

Finally, with respect to environmental impacts from operating a garbage burner, the investors proposed mitigating measures in their design that would ensure that air quality emissions would equal or better standards established for the West Coast, USA. Neither this project, nor any of the many subsequent proposals, were accepted by Government.

In 2006 a new minister with responsibility for the NSWMA was appointed when Simpson Miller became prime minister. The new minister’s policy was to have the NSWMA continue to operate as MSW collectors and also stopped the proposed use of STATIN boundaries in favour of election boundaries. These and other policy differences prompted the chairman and her deputy to resign in January 2007.

Over the past years the NSWMA, working with the energy ministry, has been developing a policy for waste-to-energy projects. The problem is, however, that the authority wants to make a profit on the disposal of garbage by charging a tipping fee. In other words, the NSWMA wants the investor to pay rather than receive a tipping fee. In similar fashion, Carib Cement, who offered to burn discarded tyres in their kiln, rejected a proposal by the NSWMA to pay for rather than receive a fee for the service.

The 2005/2006 budget for the NSWMA and subsidiaries was approximately $2.3 billion, with total collections estimated at one million tons, giving an average collection and disposal cost to the country of $2,300 per ton. If we double this cost to represent today’s reality of NSWMA’s operations, with an average heating value of 4,200 BTU/lb, one ton of garbage is equivalent to 1.5 barrels of fuel oil costing $12,200. So, even if garbage collection and disposal cost $4,600/ton, there is a $8,400/ton advantage to the country in recovering the heat as useful energy.

Look at pictures of the 2015 fire with flames shooting to the sky, and be reassured of the tremendous energy value in burning the waste to produce electrical energy. However, although this option may seem relatively simple, remember the unused recycling depot, administrative building and platform scale. And consider the many hundreds living in the Riverton housing scheme and nearby, who for many many years have depended on the dump for their living. A modern and environmentally acceptable waste-recycling and energy-recovery plant will not require so many people. So, if there is a choice between jobs for the boys and the environment, which do you think will prevail?

William "Bill" Saunders is a chemical engineer with more than 50 years’ experience in process and equipment design, energy and environmental engineering and management. He served on the board of NSWMA between 2005-2007.


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