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Cities Swimming in Trash Seek Out Innovative Recycling Help

March 21, 1990

BOSTON (AP) _ A Massachusetts company is making money out of garbage through new recycling methods for cities swimming in the refuse of a throwaway society.

Public landfills are clogged with paper, glass, aluminum and plastic, and less than 10 percent of 160 million tons of garbage produced yearly in the United States is recycled, according to David Spencer, president and founder of wTe Corp. in Bedford.

His company develops methods for processing waste to recover ferrous metal and other substances. The company also runs trash-to-energy plants under contract with cities, and joined with such companies as Dow Chemical Co. to develop plastics recycling technology.

At a research station at the University of California at Berkeley, wTe hauls in barrels of trash to experiment with ways to separate components for recycling and energy conversion.

Spencer, 44, believes recycling and recovery, which is the process of extracting certain components of trash, will become increasingly important as cities run out of land to bury refuse, long the cheapest and easiest disposal method.

″Everything we manufacture in this country finds its way into the waste stream. ... It all winds up on a trash truck,″ Spencer said in a recent interview. ″To look at the increase in garbage, just look at the GNP.″

Spencer acknowledged that recovery and recycling operations are costly for cash-strapped municipalities, which must weigh such expenses as housing for the elderly against recycling programs.

It often may be less expensive in the short run to bury garbage in a landfill, but in the long run ″yesterday’s landfill is today’s superfund site,″ he said.

Spencer, who has degrees in metallurgy and materials science, is a Philadelphia native who, after attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, founded Waste Energy Technology Corp. in 1981. The name was changed to wTe in 1987.

Now a $20 million, privately held company with 220 employees, wTe’s operations include a waste-to-energy plant and recycling facility in Akron, Ohio, waste-recovery projects in Dade County, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio, and, through a subsidiary, a polystyrene recycling project in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In Bedford, the company runs the city’s curbside recycling program.

Columbus has wTe under contract to use a magnetic process to extract ferrous metal from the city’s waste stream before waste is burned in the city’s incinerator. That makes the burning process less abrasive and wearing on city equipment.

It also reduces the toxic level in and the amount of ash left over, said Tim Barr, deputy director of Columbus public utilities.

Ray Kapper, Akron director of public services, said wTe was brought in to run the city’s waste-to-energy plant after problems with hazardous waste and an explosion in which three people died.

Such plants burn waste to produce steam and other forms of energy.

Under contract with Amoco Corp., wTe developed a process for the McDonald’s Corp. chain to recycle polystyrene containers tossed away with half-eaten hamburgers and paper. The extracted material is turned into trays and other products for Rubbermaid Inc.

Recycling methods can be environmentally benign. For example, discarded tires, long an urban eyesore, can be burned safely to create energy, Spencer says. The 300,000 to 500,000 tires discarded in Akron annually are shredded and fed into the waste-to-energy plant during winter, when people traditionally throw out less trash but energy needs are greater, he said.

Spencer said his interest in recycling comes from a lifelong hatred of seeing anything go to waste.

″My mother used to get the squeak out of the pig, as they say,″ he said.

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