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MassDEP Releases Updated Waste Management Master Plan

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The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has released its updated Solid Waste Master Plan, which aims to increase recycling and reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills. But some aspects of the plan remain controversial among environmentalists.

The new master plan released this week has a goal of reducing waste in Massachusetts 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The plan will focus on controlling food waste, increasing recycling, and looking to new technologies to eliminate waste and reducing the toll on the state’s landfills.

DEP Commissioner Ken Kimmel said that due to the lack of landfill space available, Massachusetts currently transports its trash to other states including Ohio and Indiana, a habit he’d like to see broken.

"By 2020 our prediction is that we'll be exporting between 700,000 and 2 million tons every year of our trash to other states," said Kimmel. "I think we are dangerously over-reliant upon other states being willing to accept our trash."

Kimmel said that the focus on reducing food waste is one of the main pillars of the Master Plan. In 2014, universities, hotels, restaurants, and other large producers of food waste will be banned from landfilling or burning food waste.

They will instead be encouraged to utilize composting facilities, and anaerobic digesters, a technology that uses microorganisms to break down organic waste. The process can produce a burnable biogas to generate electricity, and the processed materials can also be used to make fertilizers.

"We have a lot of interest by private facilities in building digesters in Massachusetts and we have a number of permit applications pending to do that because when you do it this way you save and you create renwable energy," said Commissioner Kimmel.

Kimmell also voiced his support for the updated bottle bill, and for communities to adopt single track recycling, both ways he says will encourage recycling.

But a more controversial aspect of the Master Plan involves modifying the state’s moratorium on waste-to-energy combustion facilities. So called gasification and pyrolisis facilities will now be able to permitted in the commonwealth.

Lynne Pledger of Clean Water Action said that in addition to the environmental risks associated with combusting trash, the demand for combustible trash could make the commonwealth a “trash magnet.”

“If we build more facilities there's no way to keep that trash for coming in," said Pledger.

Other groups including including the Partnership for Policy Integrity have studied the gasification process and also believe it to be harmful. The PFPI analyzed the Taylor Biomass gasification project, in Montgomery, NY, which, if built, could become the country’s first commercial-sized waste-to-energy project, and found that emissions from gasification facilities do not filter hazardous materials released from contaminated waste, including nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and mercury. 

Commissioner Kimmel said that strict permitting will be in place for any new technologies to prevent the release of harmful chemicals into the environment, and that gasification is still more preferable than landfilling waste.

"We will putting air quality standards in before we permit any of these facilities and those air standards will cover not only conventional pollutants but also greenhouse gases as well," said Kimmel.

But Lynne Pledger believes that the state should dedicate more funding to develop zero waste planning and assessment initiatives for cities and towns, instead of investing in new technologies that she considers risky.  

"Massachusetts is taking a step backwards by not fulling embracing the potential of zero-waste not only to protect our environment but to create businesses and jobs," said Pledger.

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Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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