Instead of sending its garbage to an upstate landfill hundreds of miles away, North Hempstead’s trash will be burned in an incinerator plant in Westbury for at least the next five years.
The town’s Solid Waste Management Authority has contracted Covanta to haul and dispose of its 140,000 tons of trash at $82 per ton, or $11 million for 2021, said Michael Kelly, the agency’s executive director. The five-year-contract includes an annual fee increase of 1.75% and went into effect Jan. 1.
Covanta and town officials said hauling trash to a waste-to-energy facility cuts down the amount of methane generated in a landfill, as well as truck traffic and ensuing emissions.
"Anything we put out on the curb has an environmental impact. And it’s all about minimizing that impact," said Michael Van Brunt, senior director of sustainability at Covanta, noting a hierarchy of waste management options. "Our biggest benefit … is our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to landfilling."
Critics say incinerators emit air pollutants like mercury, lead and dioxins and that combusting trash is not an environmentally sound way to get rid of waste.
"We think shutting down the incinerator, developing zero-waste plans, putting forth better recycling ... and composting infrastructure and corporate responsibility plans is a much better way to deal with our trash over the long term than burning it," said Adrienne Perovich, assistant director of research and grants at Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School in New York City.
Covanta officials said waste-to-energy plants are cleaner and more sophisticated than facilities of the past and that emissions from the Westbury plant are well below federal regulations.
Van Brunt also pointed to the relatively smaller percentages the facility contributes to air emissions in Nassau County compared to other polluting sources such as vehicles or commercial and industrial fuel use.
"We are a very small contributor to the local air-quality concerns," he said.
Covanta is headquartered in Morristown, New Jersey. It has four facilities on Long Island, incinerating 1.6 million tons of trash a year, or 65% of an estimated 2.4 million tons of municipal solid waste produced on the Island after recycling, according to Covanta.
The Westbury plant, which began operation in 1989, burns 1 million tons of trash a year, generating 80 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 55,400 homes for a year, the company said.
For decades, if not centuries, trash disposal has been a tricky business.
"There’s no free lunch here," said David Tonjes, a research associate professor at Stony Brook University who studies solid-waste management. "… There has been, over the past decade, growing sentiment that Long Island governments would be better served by managing garbage on Long Island than shipping it off Long Island for environmental and traffic reasons."
Beyond environmental impact, Tonjes said cost also plays a role in waste-disposal decisions.
In North Hempstead, Kelly said the town was paying a 3% increase a year in its previous contract with upstate Waterloo-based Seneca Meadows Inc. The new contract with lower increases is the "most cost-effective option" for the town, he said.