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Recycling, energy conversion seen as responses to overflowing dumps

Town landfills are great places for local politicians to distribute campaign literature and handshakes. But most dumps are filling up faster than expected, and Massachusetts is running out of places to put them. Recycling methods are improving, and that can help; so can conversion of trash to energy, say experts. Town dumps are filling up at an alarming rate in Massachusetts. While garbage may not begin piling up on curbs for want of proper disposal, state and local officials are busily seeking options other than local landfills.

Beyond the problem of finding space for disposal, solid waste presents a significant threat to the environment in some areas. Disposal costs are also escalating rapidly, posing potential economic difficulties for many cities and towns across the commonwealth.

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L. James Miller, director of the state Bureau of Solid Waste, says that by 1988 two-thirds of the landfills in Massachusetts will be closed because they are full. As many as 82 others, which may pose some risk to the ground water, will also be closed.

Thus, Mr. Miller says, as many as 80 percent of the state's landfills will be closed down within three years.

As these facilities close, garbage is being hauled farther and farther from its origins. For instance, waste from Boston is routinely hauled as far away as Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, tipping fees (the cost to dump a ton of garbage) are rising steadily. Some communities are paying as little as $5 to $6 per ton now, Miller says, but that figure could rise to $40 very quickly, he warns.

In addition, James Segel, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, says towns are less able to afford the increasing costs of disposal under the constraints of tax-limiting Proposition 21/2.

Martin Pillsbury, principal planner of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), says, ``Traditionally, solid waste has been a local responsibility.'' But the problem may be greater than some small towns can handle, he explains, and ``many solutions will be regional ones.''

Mr. Pillsbury adds that ``the state is contemplating a more active role'' in garbage disposal.

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For a number of months a group of state officials, regional planners, environmentalists, and commercial waste haulers has been working to hammer out a cohesive plan for garbage disposal.

When complete, the plan will be sent to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. He will approve or amend it, and will send it on to the state legislature for final approval.

Details will be released within the next month.The state plan will probably include the following elements:

Increased emphasis on recycling.

Incentives for constructing resource recovery facilities, which convert trash to energy.

Judicious use of more environmentally safe landfills.

The first element to initiate should be recycling, Miller says. Recycling would cut back the ``waste stream'' -- the amount of trash going to landfills -- by 20 percent, he explains.

John Schall, recycling director of the Bureau of Solid Waste, says recycling today does not resemble the programs of the 1970s, when the job was done by ``church groups and Cub Scouts.'' Then, Mr. Schall says, recycling efforts were considered a success if they ``made money.''

But economics have changed, and recycling ``provides essentially free disposal,'' he says. For every ton of waste not sent to a landfill, up to $40 is saved. For a town of 50,000 residents, that could translate into an annual savings of $200,000.

It used to be that civic-minded citizens would have to sort recyclables -- white glass, green glass, brown glass, newspapers, cardboard, cans, etc., going into separate containers.

Those days are over, says Schall. The state's plan requires people only to sort all the recyclables into one container -- ``very minimal separation,'' he explains. The recycling plants do the rest of the sorting.

For recycling to be effective, it has to operate on a large scale. But, Schall notes, there is a great market for recycled material. For instance, a glass company here recently laid off 150 workers because costs for shipping raw materials from Montana were too costly. The plant would buy all the recycled glass local communities could provide, he says.

Recycling is successful only ``when there is a high participation rate,'' Schall says. It takes a population base of 200,000 to 300,000 to support a recycling plant. Programs in other states have shown that ``high participation comes when communities pass recycling ordinances that require residents to separate'' the recyclable trash. Towns with such ordinances get compliance rates of 60 to 80 percent, Schall notes.

He says Massachusetts is trying to initiate two pilot programs in the state, and he would eventually like to see as many as 12 regional plants operating.

Another element of the state plan promotes more reliance on resource-recovery plants that incinerate garbage and produce steam or electricity. MAPC's Pillsbury says a few such plants are operating in Massachusetts. On the North Shore, a number of communities are sending much of their trash to these facilities. A plant south of Boston is being planned.

Jim Miller of the Bureau of Solid Waste says the problem with such facilities is that they cost $160-$200 million and take years to plan and build. ``The state is not going into the business of resource recovery,'' he says, but it is looking into ways to make financing such projects a bit more manageable.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering is working to strengthen requirements for providing safe landfills. In the future, controls on landfills are likely to be much more stringent. Landfills may require special liners to protect the ground water and systems to monitor potential seepage. -- 30 --{et

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