Nantucket Leads Way on Waste Recycling

By MANDY LOCKE

NANTUCKET - On any summer day a few years ago, a light breeze could carry a thick stench miles from the peak of the overgrown Madaket landfill. Today, to a viewer atop the grassy mound three stories high, only a few pieces of lingering debris around the perimeter recall the 22-acre landfill so noxious that the state forced its capping in 1999.

Five years ago, Nantucket was one of five communities in the state whose landfills threatened groundwater. Today, the island is one of 16 communities in America to recycle its solid waste at rates as high as 80 per cent.

Many Vineyard eyes watched Nantucket's pioneering transition to a solid waste composting facility. The Rhode Island firm, Waste Options, has proposed a solid waste composting facility on the Island which is now being considered by the Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District Committee. Now, Tisbury and Oak Bluffs - the two nondistrict towns - want to take part in a composting facility if the district settles on a plan to build.

Nantucket leaders were brave when they committed to a new technology, said Charles Gifford, chief executive officer for Waste Options, on a tour of the Madaket site this week with the Vineyard Gazette.

"They made tough decisions out there when they had to," said Mr. Gifford, looking out across the 140-acre property that holds the landfill, recycling center and composting facility.

But Tim Soverino, chairman of the Nantucket selectmen and a member of the landfill subcommittee, said deciding to compost the island's solid waste proved to be one of the easier decisions. Town officials selected composting over shipping waste off-island for incineration in 1986.

"Creating the revenue stream to pay for it was harder than picking the technology," Mr. Soverino said.

As a town venture, bids from composting companies in the early 1990s came in far above the $10 million limit town voters agreed to for a new facility.

"People look at municipalities as having deep pockets," Mr. Soverino said.

With the landfill spreading over 44 acres, odors offending neighbors and the state holding Nantucket to an unforgiving deadline, town officials decided to enter into a public-private agreement with Waste Options in 1998. The town had already built a $4 million recycling facility in 1996.

Waste Options set to work clearing trash from more than 20 acres of wetland - uncovering some 60,000 tires, countless abandoned cars and even 14 live explosive devices. They also began constructing the composting facility, large enough to take the island's peak flow in the summer months and allow the remining of the landfill during winter months. Waste Options is slowly digging up the landfill and processing the mound of trash to rid it of organic materials. The state set a goal of ridding landfills of organic material by 2010.

But how did the Nantucket government teach its citizens and guests how to free household trash of recyclables such as cans, newspapers and cardboard? Voters adopted a mandatory recycling policy in 1995. Now, Nantucket residents bring their trash to the facility in clear plastic bags to make enforcement easier for staff. Noncompliance is subject to fines.

"I won't say it happened overnight. It certainly took time to get people in the habit," Mr. Soverino said.

Mr. Gifford said the benefit of the Waste Options composting technology is its ability to sort out plastics and other inorganic materials at every stage of the process.

"It's very forgiving. It suits the American lifestyle," Mr. Gifford said.

One might think the story-high piles of tin cans and cardboard inside the material recovery building would yield some profit for the town, but Mr. Soverino said the markets for most recylcables have reached an all-time low.

"Recycling is absolutely the right thing to do, but it's not necessarily profitable," Mr. Soverino said.

Heaps of compost currently pile near the base of the capped landfill, waiting to be used.

While Waste Options has been producing the compost since the end of 1999, they have not received state permits to sell the compost to the public. Mr. Gifford said Waste Options applied to the state Department of Environmental Protection to begin mandatory testing in November of 1999, but they received no reply to the testing request until the spring of 2001. Many Vineyarders interpreted the lag in receiving permission to sell the compost as a sign that Nantucket's facility failed to produce a usable product.

Mr. Gifford blames bureaucracy for the delay. Mr. Soverino said the newness of such facilities in the state contributed to the 18-month wait.

"[The state] wasn't prepared to deal with our request. They needed to make sure the testing protocol was good enough for public safety," Mr. Soverino said.

Dave Ellis, solid waste section chief for the Southeast Regional Office of the state DEP, said the arrival of solid waste composting facilities in Massachusetts pushed them to develop new criteria to evaluate compost. No federal guidelines govern solid waste compost, and before now, only criteria for septic sludge were applied to solid waste compost.

"I want to know it's going to work 100 per cent before I recommend it to towns," Mr. Ellis said. "I can say I think it will work, but I want to know for sure."

A private lab began testing the product last summer, using thresholds for septic sludge permits along with new criteria for volatile organic compounds, metals, pesticides and herbicides. The testing is expected to be complete by this spring.

Mr. Gifford said none of the new criteria will be difficult to meet. In fact, he said, Waste Options had already been testing for those elements even though state permitting did not require it.

"These are the things you want to test if you want to sell the product," Mr. Gifford said.

Certainly, the town and Waste Options are anxious to sell the compost. At a price of $30 a ton and with a booming landscaping industry ready to consume the compost, Mr. Gifford said the product will certainly yield a profit.

"We won't have enough for the people on the island," Mr. Gifford said, noting the high demand for the product.

Mr. Soverino said perhaps the greatest sign of success came when the town's finance committee - which had expressed concern about entering a public-private agreement - toured the facility last fall.

"They were very impressed with how far we've come. They crossed from skeptics to supporters," Mr. Soverino said.

Both Mr. Gifford and Mr. Soverino admitted developing the full-service facility took time, patience and a willingness to accept risk.

"But Nantucket has a 100-year solution to their trash problem," Mr. Gifford said.

"We're doing things in an environmentally conscious way. I believe strongly in what we're doing," Mr. Soverino added.