Steamship task force explores rubbish options

Ralph Packer describes his barge operations and facilities, which could assist SSA.

A Packer barge loaded with loam tailings in Vineyard Haven. In the background, a Packer fuel barge. - Rich Saltzberg

The Steamship Authority’s long-range transportation task force met with Ralph Packer Thursday afternoon to learn more about his barge business, and to gauge his inclination to explore alternative ideas for hauling rubbish off-Island. 

Among the possible benefits of an alternative rubbish route would be extra space on SSA ferries, and less traffic in Woods Hole. While no firm plans were made, Packer made it clear he was amenable to continued discussions on the topic.

Packer owns Tisbury Towing and Transportation, R.M. Packer Co., and Tisbury Wharf Co. His two tugs, Sirius and Thuban, propel a great deal of material to the Vineyard from New Bedford on barges. The barge loads include modular homes, gravel, sand, and fuel oil. The barges generally return to New Bedford empty, and this is where the task force saw potential. Packer told the task force he has 65 years left on his 99-year lease on waterfront property in New Bedford, where he has a marine facility. He said he has a good relationship with the city. Packer also said he does not anticipate a service depot for offshore wind farms that’s slated to be built at his Vineyard Haven marine terminal would impede trash logistics, if a plan was ever put in motion. 

The task force saw merit in exploring baled rubbish logistics. Packer made it clear that the cost of baling rubbish, shaping it into blocks for easier transportation, had a large initial price tag.

“The cost of the equipment is expensive,” he said. He estimated about $600,000 per baling machine. In such an enterprise, he expected two machines would be needed. As far as port infrastructure was concerned, Packer appeared to already have much of what would be needed. 

Task force member Doug Sederholm, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said he noticed two additional slips were part of the drawings in a DRI (development of regional impact) application before the commission for the construction of the supply depot. 

Packer said he didn’t think three slips would be built. However, he noted that in the near future, the slip and ramp in present use will be enlarged to accommodate wider modular homes.

“I don’t think we’ll need three ramps,” he said. “Probably two will be very satisfactory. They’re expensive to build. The one we have now is 30 feet long, 15 feet wide. The new one we’re building — it’s all built, not installed — is 40 feet long and 18 feet wide, and matches the ramp we have in New Bedford.”

Sederholm asked if the second slip would increase the amount of barged material coming to the Vineyard.

“It’s hard to look into a crystal ball,” Packer said, “but I believe the Island is depending more and more on mainland supplies, especially building materials.”

He pointed out the Vineyard has two ready-mix plants and an asphalt plant. “They need the fractured bedrock, which we do not have on the Vineyard,” he said. Packer said the fractured rock was integral to concrete and roadway pavement.

He said such rock was about 700 feet below the Island, i.e. unreachable. He described fractured rock of the appropriate hardness as “not easy to find on the mainland,” but he has been able to secure a reliable supplier. 

He also mentioned sand, another key component of concrete. On Nantucket, which he also barges material to, he said that the supply of sand is “almost exhausted.” And even though sand is mined on the Vineyard, Packer said, he hauls it in. 

“Goodale does have a large amount, but shortly he will exhaust his inventory of sand. And so that means that sand for construction is very necessary, and I assume soon we’ll be importing more of it.”

As it stands now, Packer described his operation as the biggest in the city of New Bedford.

“As far as moving product out of New Bedford, in dollars, we’re the largest mover of product out of New Bedford, and in tons we’re also the largest mover of product out of New Bedford. So I think they’ll respect what we’re doing. New Bedford has been overcooperative every day we’ve been there.”

After over an hour of discussion, the task force and Packer decided to keep the topic open-ended with an eye toward exploration of possibly moving rubbish in stackable bales, as opposed to loose volumes. 


  1. Stackable bales seems like a no brainer. They would take up less room, be easier to handle on every point of exchange, and would be easier to recover in the event of a boating accident that put them into the water. That’s a big one for me– accidents happen.
    And one other thing– Glass.
    There are a few notable characteristics of glass.
    It is heavy, therefore expensive to transport.
    It is made of sand.
    It can be broken down into small gravel like pieces.
    It can be mixed into concrete as an aggregate for some applications.
    Why not do a better job of separating glass from the waste stream, and re use it right on island? It would cost something to build appropriate infrastructure but we would save coming and going.

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