Economics continue to foil innovation in Island solid waste disposal

A Packers Barge — Martha's Vineyard Times File Pho

Over the years, a number of studies have been done to investigate how Martha’s Vineyard can best take out the trash. Most recently, at the Steamship Authority (SSA) meeting on Oct. 27, boatline members agreed to again explore private-carrier options, buying or renting barges for transporting waste to New Bedford from Martha’s Vineyard, and engaged consulting firm Weston and Sampson for the task.

Transporting Island trash is costly. The last landfill on Martha’s Vineyard closed in 2009. Since then, solid waste has been shipped off-Island truckload by truckload. According to a 2011 Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) study, 3,500 tons of trash are hauled off-Island each year, accounting for 15 percent of the Steamship Authority’s freight traffic, or one in seven freight trips.

On Nov. 4, Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour, along with Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande, Tisbury port council representative George Balco, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson, and representatives from Weston and Sampson met in Woods Hole to discuss the preliminary findings.

“I think the meeting can be characterized as exploratory at best,” Mr. Whritenour told The Times. “We had met previously with Wayne Lamson, who had expressed strong support for our efforts to study potentially barging solid waste to New Bedford. Our preliminary analysis had shown barging costs would be far in excess of our current costs. At Wednesday’s meeting, we reviewed the initial results of our own analysis, and Wayne indicated that he would be working to update a previous study of freight service to New Bedford. So we agreed to stay in contact and work together as additional information was developed.”

Despite the initial findings of the Weston and Sampson study, barging to New Bedford has strong advocates.

George Balco, Tisbury port council representative, told The Times that Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, which are aligned as one refuse district, and are responsible for half of the trash shipped off the Island, will still be looking at renting or buying barges and shipping municipal solid waste (MSW) and construction and demolition debris (CDD) to New Bedford.

“New Bedford invested a lot of money into their port to service the Cape Wind project, so they’re well equipped and very enthusiastic,” he said.

New Bedford SSA member Moira Tierney is on record saying her city would welcome anything the Island wanted to ship, trash included.

Falmouth SSA board member Elizabeth Gladfelter has also championed barging to New Bedford for years. Her constituency has long complained about the heavy truck traffic that rumbles through their town 28 times every weekday.

Time to bail

A key element in making the economics work is compacting the solid waste and recyclables as densely as possible. A baler may be a crucial part of the solution. As the name implies, a baler compresses solid material into tightly packed squares and wraps them in plastic. Depending on the size of the machine, a single bale can weigh between 400 and 4,000 pounds.

“A baler can make a lot of sense,” Mr. Balco said. “They’re expensive, but they can save a lot of trips and manpower. If you amortize the cost, it can more than pay for itself pretty quickly.”

Mr. Balco said finding a location for a baler would be a challenge on the Island. “We’ve had some preliminary conversations with Ralph Packer about the possibility,” he said. “The idea definitely has gained momentum.”

A 2011 study by Boston-based HDR Engineering also recommended that Tisbury and Oak Bluffs look into purchasing a baler. The study said the installation of a baling system would cost approximately $600,000. Now retired Tisbury Public Works director Fred LaPiana, a longtime advocate of barging and baling, maintained that Oak Bluffs and Tisbury would save money if they transported at least 18 containers per barge.

The study also cautioned it might be necessary to store the bales for several days to fill up a barge, which could cause pest problems. Mr. LaPiana said Tisbury’s old transfer station could be used as a staging area for the sealed containers.

At the time of that study, Mr. LaPiana said that he was in discussions with John Packer about Tisbury Transportation and Towing, which is owned by Mr. Packer, providing barge service to New Bedford. But the costs sank the idea.

In 2012, the SSA commissioned a study to determine if it would be financially feasible for the SSA itself to provide freight/waste service between New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard. However, since the boats would be mostly empty for the home leg of the round-trip, the cost was deemed prohibitive.

At October’s SSA meeting, SSA general counsel Steve Sayers recommended the staff prepare a number of options, including the SSA making dedicated trips to New Bedford, and also issuing a request for proposals (RFP) or advertising to solicit interest from private carriers. “Let’s find what the people who actually do this type of service would recommend,” he said. “Because what we would want is something that doesn’t cost us anything; they would do it on their own, they would make money, and it would become part of a stable transportation network.”

Barging and baling also brings up the oft-repeated discussion of economies of scale, and the benefits of having one waste-removal entity on the Island — combining the Oak Bluffs–Tisbury refuse/recycling cooperative (OBTRRC) and the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDD) which manages solid waste for Aquinnah, Chilmark, Edgartown, and West Tisbury.

“We’re very open to those discussions,” Mr. Whritenour said. “There are tremendous benefits in regionalizing. Obviously it could help make barging more feasible. I think now is the time to begin those discussions.”