College trash habits cause concern, as does incinerator in Chester

Two weeks ago, a group of the Green Advisors conducted a waste audit of Kohlberg Hall and the Science Center. The purpose of the annual audit is to create a visual representation of the amount of waste produced by those buildings and test how well the Swarthmore community knows what to compost, recycle and put in the trash. Spearheaded by Green Advisor coordinators Kelley Langhans ’16,  Indy Reid-Shaw ’17 and Laura Laderman ’18, a team of GAs spent a day sorting through the 347 pounds of waste that was produced by Kohlberg and the Science Center on a single day and recorded the amount of waste in each of the three categories that was incorrectly disposed of. They found that out of everything that had been placed in trash bins, 35.3 percent of it was actually trash, and the rest could have been composted or recycled. Trash at Swarthmore is burned at Covanta Waste facility in Chester, the largest energy-from-waste incinerator in the country, which is located about eight miles away from the college.

The incinerator is currently responsible for incinerating all of the trash in Delaware County, and also receives shipments of trash from New Jersey, New York and Delaware. In the process of incinerating all this trash, the incineration plant emits toxic gases into the air. Some students in the Swarthmore community, as well as many environmental organizations, say that these emissions pose an imminent public health threat.

“The trash is reduced to only 30-50% of its original amount, leaving ashes that are loaded with toxins such as dioxin and particulate matter,” wrote John Lim ’16 in an email. He also explained how easily these toxins could affect Delaware County residents.

“These toxins are released into the air as a result of the incineration. Dioxins are fat-soluble and thus can find their way into us through the consumption of local foods,” Lim said. He cited World Health Organization findings that prolonged exposure to dioxin has shown to increase rates of cancer, damage the immune system, interfere with hormonal systems and cause developmental problems. Furthermore, Lim wrote that these health effects are disproportionately felt by people of color, regardless of economic class.

Health issues for residents of Chester include the highest percentage of low-weight births, 60 percent higher rates of lung cancer and higher blood lead levels than anywhere else in the state of Pennsylvania, according to the Delco Alliance for Environmental Justice. Additionally, residents complain frequently of noise pollution and unbearable smells from trucks bringing waste through the town.

Some students point to a cultural problem.

“I don’t think Swarthmore has an ‘environmentalist culture’ among the entire school’s population,” wrote GA Olivia Ortiz ’16. She said she feels students do not adequately dispose of their trash due to a lack of knowledge or ambivalence.

“People are really unaware of what can be composted or really apathetic to the idea of carrying their food scraps and compostable cups and plates around until they’re near a compost bin,” she continued. Ortiz explained that various groups, such as Earthlust and the GAs, have tried educating people and changing campus culture. These groups have also been providing information on how people’s decisions about waste impact others, but Ortiz felt that it is not having as big of an effect as it could.

“Honestly, people come in with certain knowledge [and] habits about waste disposal, and it’s hard to change those,” she said.

Reid-Shaw also believes that promoting a more environmentally-friendly campus culture is a necessity.

“This waste audit demonstrated that there needs to be a great deal of more education and behavioral change for our composting system to work properly,” wrote Reid-Shaw. She said that there are several initiatives currently happening on campus, initiated by the Green Advisors and in partnership with Sustainability Director Laura Cacho, to improve community members’ composting habits. Among these initiatives is a contracting deal with a company that collects Swarthmore’s organic waste to be used as fertilizer at Linvilla Orchards, a family farm in Media, PA. Larger compost depositing stations have also been created near LPAC and Essie Mae’s, and Green Advisors no longer take compost to the station behind the athletic bleachers. There is also a pilot study happening in McCabe Library to see how well composting works in a library, and the team hopes to start a faculty Green Advisor program to incorporate more of the campus community into the sustainability initiative.

The GAs and Cacho are working towards greater sustainability efforts on campus primarily to divert as much waste as possible from the large-scale trash incinerator run by the Covanta company in Chester. According to the Delaware County Alliance for Environmental Justice website, the plant currently run by Covanta has been repeatedly fined for violating emissions limits on some of these toxic gases, and it continued to violate those limits. Additionally, in July 2013, Covanta signed a contract to burn over 800,000 tons of waste from New York City over the next 20 to 30 years, according to the Delaware County Daily Times. Several protests by residents resisting the increase in trash incineration have occurred. Only 1.5 percent of the waste burned in Chester is actually generated by the town, with the continuation of the facility dependent on waste from external locations.

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