Trash power

Covanta facility turns waste into wattage.

Trash from transfer stations across the Island is brought to the Covanta SEMASS facility in Rochester. – Lucas Thors

Many people on-Island may wonder, where does trash go after we chuck it over the concrete wall at the dump?

The journey that our waste takes, whether it be an empty shampoo bottle or an old bed frame, is an impressive one.

Most of the garbage Islanders throw out ends up at the Covanta SEMASS facility in Rochester, right off Cranberry Highway.

Here, advanced technology burns the trash and turns it into dozens of megawatts of electricity each year to be used in powering local homes and businesses.

The SEMASS facility processes 1 million tons of municipal solid waste annually, providing 40 communities across Cape Cod, Southeastern Mass., and the Boston metropolitan area with electricity for more than 75,000 homes, according to the SEMASS website.

The website says that SEMASS is the largest Energy from Waste (EfW) processing plant in the commonwealth.

In 1987, the M.V. Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDRRD) completed an extensive study that looked at multiple solid waste management strategies to serve the entire Island. The district determined that Covanta would be the right company for the job.

In 2017, the refuse district shipped 8,300 tons of municipal solid waste to the Covanta facility. This waste consisted of common household waste and food  waste from restaurants, along with used construction materials.

Refuse district manager Don Hatch told The Times that after many landfills across Massachusetts closed, the towns on Martha’s Vineyard had to find another way to dispose of their waste. “There are very few landfills left in Massachusetts; the one on-Island closed, so we thought this would be a good alternative,” Hatch said.

Hatch said waste management at SEMASS is closely monitored through each stage of the process, providing transparency and the assurance that our trash is in good hands.

One reason Hatch said the MVRDRRD chose Covanta in Rochester was because it is a local facility, and is the closest processing plant to the Island. Hatch also said the path the trash trucks take along Route 28 enables them to load up on cargo such as construction materials on the way back. “The trucks carrying the trash take it over on the boat, then they can backload after delivery and bring cargo from off-Island,” Hatch said. “It’s the most efficient way of doing things.”

This process falls in line with the goal of being environmentally conscious, and utilizes time and fuel to the fullest extent.

Apart from the normal day-to day-trash, there are many programs that Covanta offers to mitigate pollution and dispose of waste in a sustainable way.

One of these programs, Hatch said, is the mercury reclamation service. Islanders can stop by the dumps in Edgartown, Chilmark, Aquinnah, or West Tisbury and dispose of their fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, thermometers, and LCD displays, free of charge.

Mercury is a toxic environmental pollutant that travels up the food chain and is harmful to humans, even in microscopic parts per million.

According to the EPA website, 670 million fluorescent light bulbs are thrown away each year, most in city garbage that is not processed. Materials containing mercury are often landfilled, and afterwards are consumed by animals and leached into the groundwater.

In collaboration with Cape Cod Cooperative Extension’s hazardous materials program, Covanta SEMASS has collected more than 1,800 pounds of mercury thermostats and other items since 2004, according to the website.

The EPA estimated that nearly one ton of greenhouse gas emissions are avoided for every ton of municipal solid waste processed at an EfW plant.

The original 20-year contract the MVRDRRD held with Covanta SEMASS recently expired — but the district just signed another 10-year contract, so they will continue to send waste of all kinds to the facility for disposal and recovery.  



  1. I met a Senior Executive from Covanta on a flight earlier this Summer. I gave him the very rough numbers from the Vineyard on population and electricity usage along with an outline of our trashes’ ‘carbon footprint’…trucks to transfer station to trucks to ferry to off Island facilities. He thought that it would be a fantastic opportunity to have a trash to energy plant on the Island if we are genuinely a Community dedicated to increased self sufficiency and sustainability.
    I asked about effluent from the stack and he indicated that the technology is so good that the primary gas coming from the stack is actually Oxygen. The final waste product ‘ash’ is approximately 1/10th of the original trash/fuel input. The systems can take construction materials as well as landscape debris. Stack heights are also significantly lower than they used to be…I believe he said under 100ft, and they can and have built modular units as small as 25 MW.
    I could imagine Vineyard Power working with Goodale to repurpose their site once they have exhausted the use of the pit. Anyway…apologies for the lengthy comment, but the Island can generate a significant portion of its base load electricity generation need and dramatically change the carbon footprint of our trash and I genuinely believe also get us a low cost local source of electricity. As to permitting, MVC, NIMBY issues, etc…maybe just a pipe dream.

  2. I understand that recyclables are lumped in with this trash. So why are we separating them out and being charged for it?

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