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'Contaminants'

Jun 03

What is the Waste to Energy Facility?

Posted to Garbage Goat on June 3, 2019 at 8:27 AM by Austin Stewart

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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!
May 10

How Are Batteries Recycled?

Posted to Garbage Goat on May 10, 2019 at 9:55 AM by Austin Stewart

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Recycling a battery is not a straightforward process, and differs widely depending on which type of battery is being recycled. The types of batteries you probably use most regularly are lead acid batteries (like in a car), alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C, D, 9V, etc.), and lithium ion batteries (used in many rechargeable electronic devices). Each of these batteries is made of different components, and they are all recycled separately from each other.

No batteries should be thrown into the trash. Whether they are being landfilled or incinerated, it is not a safe or recommended disposal method. Some batteries, particularly lithium ion batteries, can spark quite easily and start fires at transfer stations and in collection trucks when disposed of as trash. When handling batteries or delivering them to a transfer station, place tape over one end of each battery so that no accidental circuit is formed. Even when a battery is considered nontoxic and safe for landfill disposal, the best option is to take it to the Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) section of one of our region’s transfer stations.

Lead acid batteries, such as the batteries found in conventional cars, are made with elemental lead and are considered toxic. Recycling lead acid batteries starts with grinding up the batteries and neutralizing the acid. Machines crush the batteries to separate the lead from the acid and plastic parts, then the pieces are suspended in a liquid where the heavier metal elements can be taken from the bottom, while the lighter plastic parts can be pulled from the top. Once each material in the battery has been separated and treated so that it is no longer dangerous to handle, they can be recycled in their separate categories.

Alkaline batteries used to have higher amounts of mercury in them, making them toxic and dangerous for landfill disposal. However, modern US laws have prevented manufacturers from adding mercury to these batteries, and they are now considered non-toxic. Because alkaline batteries are not a serious threat to landfill safety, there’s less incentive to recycle them or process them separately from our normal waste stream. Alkaline batteries do not have to be disposed of at a designated HHW location, but because they’re easily confused with NiCad and Lithium batteries, all types are welcomed at HHW disposal locations where trained staff can properly identify battery types and dispose of them. You can also use the Spokane Kootenai Waste Directory to find the closest alkaline battery recycler near you. 

Lithium ion battery recycling is complex. These batteries contain valuable and limited metals, so recycling the materials in them is much more crucial. They’re also made of more complex materials, so they require additional steps to be recycled. Just like lead-acid batteries, lithium ion varieties are often crushed or ground to separate their individual parts. Then, sieves and liquid processes are used to further isolate the materials. Often heat is used to cause a transformation of the various metal minerals present in a lithium ion battery, creating usable materials that can be made into new products again. Currently, lithium is not usually one of the materials captured in lithium ion battery recycling. Extracting the lithium from the battery is more expensive than mining lithium directly from raw materials, and current recycling technology for this material is changing fast enough that there is not an established method. As lithium ion batteries continue to be a major part of our electronics such as smartphones and computers, better and more efficient recycling methods will have to be developed.

If recycling batteries is confusing to you, that’s alright. The variations and exceptions can be overwhelming, but you can always bring all your batteries to the Household Hazardous Waste section of one of our transfer stations. Keep your recyclables clean, dry, and empty, and focus on the basics: paper and cardboard, plastic bottles and jugs, and tin and aluminum cans.

Apr 04

Food Waste

Posted to Garbage Goat on April 4, 2019 at 12:09 PM by Austin Stewart

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Did you know that in Spokane County, about 40% of all curbside collected waste is organic, or waste that can be composted? This is comparable to our statewide average, which shows that 43% of Washington’s residential waste is organic. The organic material found in residential waste is mostly made of food, garden, and yard waste. Other categories, such as manure, animal remains, and agricultural byproducts are also considered organic waste, but they’re not likely to be found in residential trash cans. Organic waste placed in your curbside trash bin will be sent with all other waste to either the Waste-to-Energy facility to be incinerated, or it will be landfilled. 

One goal of many sustainability advocates is to remove organic waste from our trash, and instead compost it. It might not seem like sending your food waste to be landfilled or incinerated is a major issue, but the difference between landfilling, incinerating, and composting organic waste is significant. When food, yard, and garden waste is put in a landfill, there is little to no available oxygen and this affects the way these materials decompose. The bacteria that live in an anaerobic environment, or anywhere where there is no oxygen, create methane, a greenhouse gas that is worse for our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Normally, materials breaking down with plenty of oxygen would release carbon dioxide, but the methane created in anaerobic landfill conditions is far worse than carbon dioxide. In fact, the EPA says methane can store more than 28 times the amount of heat in our environment than carbon dioxide does. What does this mean? Methane is very, very good at storing heat, and so it helps capture and retain heat in our atmosphere, making it one of the worst greenhouse gasses. 

Landfilled food waste creates methane and contributes to atmospheric warming, but what if your food waste is being incinerated at the Waste-to-Energy plant? The issue of this disposal method is different than with landfilling: the organic waste won’t generate any methane, but the moist waste is not an efficient fuel. The Waste-to-Energy facility burns waste and generates electricity. However, if the facility has to expend a lot of energy drying and burning things like food waste, it increases the amount of energy used in the process, and decreases the efficiency. Sending your organic waste here won’t harm anyone, but it limits the output of the facility and uses more energy. 

A better alternative to putting your food scraps and other organic waste in the trash is to compost them. One way to do this is to get a Clean Green cart, which is serviced weekly March through November. You can put all your food scraps and yard waste in this bin, and also any food-soiled paper products like napkins, paper towels, and pizza boxes. This method allows you to sustainably get rid of your organic waste without the work of managing your own compost pile. Of course, you can also compost your food waste yourself, and this can even be done in an apartment. Composting methods such as vermiculture and Bokashi allow people with smaller homes to compost their waste without needing much outdoor space. (More information on composting can be found on the Master Composter Program page.) You can also find a local community garden to see if there is a communal compost pile. If getting a Clean Green cart is out of your budget, all Clean Green materials can be self-hauled to a Transfer Station at half the price of disposing trash. 

If you do have a Clean Green cart, everything you put it in it is taken to Barr-Tech, a commercial compost facility. Barr-Tech uses large-scale composting methods that speed up the process, allowing for products like pizza boxes and certain compostable paper items to decompose quickly that wouldn’t normally break down in a home compost pile. Not only does this method prevent methane from being generated in a landfill, but it helps valuable nutrients re-enter soils, an important part of maintaining environmental resilience. Compost’s benefits are hard to compare with the alternative of landfilling organic waste—it feeds our soil, and a single pound of compost can hold up to 40 pounds of water, helping to prevent dry conditions that are hard on crops and require additional irrigation. 

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Diverting your organic waste from the trash to compost may seem like extra work and effort, and it is. Sustainability, and living within the means of our planet, is not an easy task, yet the effort required to live sustainably will not go unrewarded. As demonstrated by the value of compost, a little bit of effort can have major payoffs. When thinking about your waste, remember the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—and this time, let’s add a fourth: Rot!