Spokane County produces between 800 and 1,300 tons of trash every day, and a lot of that waste is sent to the Spokane Waste to Energy (WTE) facility to be incinerated for energy recovery. The process includes burning the trash, turning that heat into electrical energy, and treating the remaining ash so that it can be safely landfilled. Overall, this process reduces the volume of the waste by 90% and creates enough energy to power 13,000 homes in our area.
Burning trash is not legal for citizens
, so why is it okay for the WTE facility to burn trash? The WTE facility goes through multiple steps to treat the ash and by-products created by burning the trash, which ensures that they remain well below EPA emission standards and keep our air clean. In fact, the vapor you see coming out of the WTE’s smokestack is mostly water. When waste is delivered to the WTE plant, it is first mixed up so that there is plenty of air in the trash to help it burn quickly. This step also allows the operators to see any waste that should not be burned such as sheetrock and other contaminants. The trash is then moved into an incinerator, where temperatures reach 2,000°F, and almost everything burns. Of course, metal materials will not always break down, and any ferrous metals (metals that are magnetic and contain iron) are later removed from the ash to be recycled.
As the trash burns, chemicals are used to bind with toxins present in the fly ash created by the fire, forming compounds that are easier for the facility operators to remove and keep out of the air. This includes ammonia, which treats nitrogen oxide, and a lime slurry (calcium hydroxide) that treats acid gasses like hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide. The smoke is also pulled through thousands of Gore Tex-covered filters that clean the air and allow the fly ash to be handled separately. Because of the various chemical treatments the ash goes through, it is considered inert, meaning it will not leach any harmful heavy metals or toxins into the environment. The ash from the WTE facility is then sent to a landfill in Roosevelt, Washington, where it is buried in its own designated area.
Together, the City of Spokane and Spokane County own five landfills, all of which are closed to the general public. Originally, Spokane County’s waste was sent to these locations, but problems arose when leachate, or chemical runoff from the landfills, began getting into the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, our sole source of water. The aquifer is sometimes as little as 60-80 feet below the ground surface, so it is particularly easy for pollutants to find their way into our water. Additionally, more than a million gallons of water flow between the aquifer and the Spokane River each day, making it especially important to keep both clean. For this reason, Spokane County decided to close the landfills—though they are continuously monitored—and build the WTE facility.
There is no perfect way to deal with trash. Whether waste is being deposited in a landfill or burnt for energy, there are going to be environmental consequences. The best solution to handling trash is to eliminate it in the first place. Reducing your waste can include steps like removing single-use and non-recyclable materials from your life, and making sure you are recycling properly. Keep your recyclables clean, dry, and empty, and focus on the basics: paper and cardboard, plastic bottles and jugs, and tin and aluminum cans. Your effort to reduce and divert your waste adds up—so let's all do our part!