The Washington Post recently reported that the District of Columbia may be joining a "new" national trend to get energy from garbage by burning it in a giant $150-million incinerator to produce steam for heating or for generating electricity. But the burning of trash and garbage for energy is not really a new idea at all. What is new is the idea that we should attempt to burn all of our mixed wastes together without first separating out those items that are worth more as raw resources than as BTU fodder. If the District is going to have a burn plant, we should insist that recycling be a part of the deal.
Until the early 1960s, the law had all Washingtonians separating their wastes into three categories: ashes, a category that also included oyster and clam shells; trash, which meant only dry household refuse; and food garbage. Separate collections also were made for dead animals and for nightsoil.
The ashes went to a brickyard dump in Northeast where many poor people sifted through the ashes and debris for charcoal ad wood cinders to use for heating and cooking or to sell to others for fuel. The city government supported this work by providing sieves for the salvagers, most of whom were young, black children.
Hundreds more of these children and adult salvagers, called "pickers," worked and lived in a shantytown around a trash dump on Benning Road. There, as fast as the horse-drawn wagons could be unloaded, the rubbish was sorted into separate piles for iron, brass, copper, lead, zinc, cotton and woolen rags, paper, bones, bottles, tin cans and barrels. Antique and junk dealers, secondhand furniture dealers, bottlers and scrap dealers for different industries came weekly to buy the pickers' gleanings. Whatever was not sold or used by the pickers themselves was dumped into the marshy shore waters of the Anacostia River.
Around 1913, these early recycling efforts had evolved into a small industry. The pickers became employees of the D.C. government and a great mechanical innovation was brought in: the traveling conveyor. At one end men with long forks lifted the rubbish from wagons and spread it onto a wide traveling conveyor platform. Standing on either side, 50 women and girls sorted nearly everything into barrels. The leftovers, small scraps of debris, bits of hay and excelsior chips, splinters of wood, odd pieces of paper and plain household dust and dirt, fell off the end of the conveyor and into a stoke hole where men would shovel it into a furnace. This kept a boiler going, the steam from which powered the conveyor, the paper-baling presses and the water pumps that served as emergency fire extinguishers.
By 1929, this salvage business was grossing more than $100,000 in yearly sales, with only two tons per day being burned. By comparison, today we send more than 2,000 tons a day to disposal sites, and instead of making a profit, it costs about $60 a ton.
For awhile, the recycling of wet garbage was equally impressive for its efficiency and profitability. Half the city's garbage, along with animal carcasses and slaughterhouse scraps, was collected in boxes, loaded onto wagons, transferred to rail cars and then shipped to a rendering plant 32 miles away in Cherry Hill, Va. There animal hides were salvaged for sale directly to tanneries, and the garbage and other remains were steamed and pressed to separate out grease, water and a sterile residue, called presscake.
Because of its high nitrogen content, the presscake was at first sold as a fertilizer and then as an ingredient or producing cattle feed. When market prices for these items fell, 40 percent was cut off the plant's fuel bill by burning presscake instead of coal in the furnaces. The grease was bought by explosives manufacturers to make nitroglycerin powders and by candle manufacturers to make paraffin. And, until 1949, one of the business' best customers used this garbage grease for making hand soaps. At its peak in 1926, the year's profits from these by-product sales totaled $50,000.
In 1949, as markets went down and operating costs went up, the city commissioners considered following the example of local farmers by purchasing 10,000 hogs. In this perfect recycling plan, the hogs ate half the city's garbage, then the people ate the hogs, and the scraps went back into the garbage to be eaten again by more hogs.
The city eventually chose dumping over hog farming, but many local hogs did not go off the Washington waste diet until the mid-1960s when an epidemic of trichinosis caused health officials to enforce an old and impractical ordinance requiring the garbage to be cooked before it could be served.
Obviously, I'm not suggesting that a picking yard, a rendering plant of a hog farm is necessarily the best way to go about disposing of wastes today. However, there are other appropriate and profitable technologies and systems for utilizing the most valuable components of our wastes, while creating many new jobs and business opportunities. Organics can be composed to produce a rich soil, and earthworms are hard workers who can speed this process along. Recycled glass and cans bring up to $40 or more per ton, and aluminum products $400 and more per ton. The National Black Veterans Organization here is collecting and processing quality papers that bring in from $40 to $140 dollars per ton. The Institute for Local Self Reliance is assisting the Crispus Attucks group in D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood to design a pilot project that would ferment garbage and waste to make an alcohol fuel.
Before we wholeheartedly endorse the new $150-million burn-plant solution, we should look carefully at whether we are getting the most for our money, our resources and our human energies. We must also ask what we will do with its residue, which is, given the complexity of the ingredients in our waste stream today, likely to be a very hazardous byproduct requiring even more expensive and ingenious disposal solutions.