Once a year, another continent’s trash turns into the Spokane Waste-to-Energy Plant’s treasure.
Food waste generated by American scientists researching in Antarctica was incinerated in Spokane over a 10-day period last month. The trash made its way from McMurdo Station to the West Plains via Port Hueneme, Calif.
The annual delivery is what Waste-to-Energy Plant officials call a “special incineration case”; such business accounts for less than 1 percent of the trash burned at the plant each year, according to Damon Taam, system contract manager for the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System.
The Waste-to-Energy Plant charges $165 per ton for special incineration cases. This year, Best Recycling – the company with the government contract to remove waste from the pristine continent in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty – delivered 308.5 tons of waste.
“We send it to Spokane because they have the biggest and best incinerator on the West Coast,” said Ken Bell, owner of Best Recycling.
Bell said that refuse is carefully looked over before being shipped out. Only the food waste makes it to the Northwest.
Everything used by Americans in Antarctica “from aluminum to scrap wood gets recycled,” Bell said. “If there was an item that started with a ‘Z’ that we recycled, I’d say we recycle everything from ‘A to Z,’ but ‘A to W’ will have to work for now.”
Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspect the waste at every stop along its journey to ensure that regulations are being upheld, according to Bell. There were inspectors present, for example, when the 16 semitrucks of food waste emptied their loads at the Waste-to-Energy Plant and when the freshly thawed trash went into the incinerator two days later. The USDA is looking to minimize the potential for insects and disease getting into the food supply.
The Waste-to-Energy Plant does a “test burn” before mixing the rest of the garbage in with similar waste created in the area, according to Lisa Woodard, public information officer for the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency.
“It’s mostly food waste that gets mixed in with other food waste created locally. So we’re not concerned about its effects particularly in Spokane,” Woodard said.
Other “special case” waste incinerated in the Spokane facility includes confiscated drugs and paraphernalia from the Drug Enforcement Administration; expired prescription drugs from pharmaceutical companies; and goods that didn’t clear U.S. customs, according to Taam.
“They give (smugglers) a choice at the border: They can send the goods back to China or India or they can deal with the goods by sending them to us,” Taam said. “Most of the time, they prefer to have the stuff incinerated so they don’t have to send them back.”
The U.S. Postal Service also sends discarded, unwanted stamps to Spokane.
Said Taam, “Nobody wants a 3-cent stamp anymore.”