Kicking the garbage can

by Brian Clarey

At last week’s city council meeting the subject of reopening the White Street Landfill to household waste was once again breached. You could be forgiven for thinking this matter settled — it was the hotbutton subject for council leading up to the 2009 elections, when some candidates said they would be in favor of keeping the facility closed to municipal solid waste, or MSW in garbage-talk.

Now there’s a new angle: the landfill as a profit center. Of course, the landfill already generates income by collecting tipping fees and selling natural gas and high-quality mulch made from the things people throw away. But now we’re talking high-tech wizardry: a plasma gasification system that proponents say can break down refuse to the atomic level, creating natural gas, steam and physical matter suitable for construction slag, all suitable for resale. The move would also affect the $8.5 million the city spent in FY 2009-’10 on hauling and tipping our garbage in Montgomery County.

But the garbage equation is loaded with variables: the price of gasoline and tipping fees, which are scheduled to go up 55 cents a ton on Oct. 1, no small thing when we’re talking more than 200,000 tons a year. Plus there’s the amount of garbage itself, which is tied to population and economic prosperity. And then there’s the time factor, which is currently working against us.

St. Lucie County in Florida has been trying to implement plasma gasification since 2004, according to the county Assistant Solid Waste Director Ron Rogers. After 18 months of study, a research trip to Japan to witness a similar plant was in operation, a lengthy public-relations campaign and a tricky permitting process, construction has yet to begin. He says he’d like to see it online by the end of 2011.

Geoplasm, the company behind the St. Lucie plant, has already said it is not interested in Greensboro’s trash.

In the years we’ve been talking about the landfill, the numbers have changed. Construction has decreased. Private companies have siphoned off some of the collection duties, leaving us with less to work with. Our inaction has cost us time and money. Meanwhile the garbage keeps on coming.

Much has been made about a regional waste solution, incorporating all the cities of the Triad. But High Point and Winston-Salem have more than 20 years left on their respective landfills, making urgency the sole province of Greensboro.

Plasma gasification could take up to 10 years to be realized, which means the time to act is now if that’s the way we want to go. Council’s decision to solicit proposals for alternative waste disposal is a solid move in that direction. If the technology is sound, then White Street could itself become the regional waste solution for the Triad.

If we merely reopen White Street to MSW in a traditional landfill situation, the political football would once again be up in the air and the meter on the landfill’s lifespan would again be running hard.

Or we could continue outsourcing our landfill needs, which last year cost an average of more than $700,000 a month, paid to the privately owned facility in Montgomery County.

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