Coal Tar – Yesterday’s Nuisance, Today’s Problem
OTO’s work includes a lot of remediation Massachusetts and Connecticut. One of the things we run into on occasion is coal tar, a viscous, black, smelly product of our industrial heritage. Coal tar is not one of the more common challenges encountered at MCP sites in Massachusetts, with gasoline, fuel oil, chlorinated VOCs and metals all coming up more often. It is, however, a complex and challenging mixture of contaminants. Thanks in part to the unfortunate experience with the Worcester Regional Transit Authority’s redevelopment project on Quinsigamond Avenue in Worcester, or the recent proposal to cap tar-contaminated sediments in the Connecticut River in Springfield, coal tar is back in the news after a period of relative obscurity.


Don’t worry– this isn’t in Massachusetts.

Coal tar is a challenge for three main reasons.

First, it can be a widespread problem. Most coal tar encountered in the environment is a legacy of the coal gasification plants that supplied Massachusetts’s cities and towns with heating and lighting gas before natural gas became available via pipeline in the 1950s. Virtually any city or substantial town before 1900 had a gasworks, and some towns had several. Gasworks were often historically built on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ due to their historically noisome character—their smell and constant racket beggared description. Where such “city gas” plants were not available, mill or factory complexes like the Otis Mills Company in Ware often had their own private gas plants, some of which also sold surplus gas to local residents for gas lights and stoves, and in some cases essentially became the town’s gas company.

As byproducts of making gas out of coal, these plants produced coal tar, cyanide-laden spent purification media, and much else of a dangerous nature. Some coal tar could be refined into waterproofing pitch, paving materials, industrial solvents, and even the red, foul-tasting carbolic soap that nobody who has ever seen “A Christmas Story” will ever forget. Massachusetts was also home to several plants that reprocessed tar into these plants, some of which later became all too well known, like the Baird & McGuire site in Holbrook, MA or the Barrett plant in Everett and Chelsea.

In addition to historically releasing wastes to the environment at the gasworks, gas companies also historically created off-plant dumps for their wastes, creating hazardous waste sites that might be located miles from the gasworks, or even in a different town.
EPA historically kept a sharp eye out for coal gasification plants, and during the 1980s listed over a dozen coal tar sites in Massachusetts on CERCLIS. Many of the sites that most alarmed MassDEP in the ‘80s were also related to MGPs—for example, Costa’s Dump in Lowell or the former Commercial Point gasworks in Boston. In recent years, however, regulatory attention has taken on an increasingly narrow focus towards other concerns, most notably vapor intrusion from chlorinated VOCs.

The second important consideration about coal tar is that it is pretty dangerous stuff, and poses both cancer and noncancer risks. Coal tar is typically a heterogeneous mixture of something like 10,000 distinct identifiable compounds, ranging from low molecular weight, highly volatile compounds like benzene and styrene to massive “2-methyl chickenwire” asphaltene compounds. From an environmental and toxicological perspective, coal tar is most conspicuous for its high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as much as 10% PAHs by weight, which make it significantly more toxic than petroleum. Two of the coal tar’s signature PAHs are benzo [a] pyrene and naphthalene; some coal tar can be up to 3% naphthalene alone, which accounts for the distinct, penetrating ‘mothball’ odor at MGP remediation sites.

Coal tar was associated with occupational diseases ranging from skin lesions to scrotal cancer even during the mid-19th Century, and was the first substance to be conclusively shown to be a carcinogen (by the Japanese scientist Katsusaburo Yamagiwa in 1915). The British scientist E.L. Kennaway subsequently proved that benzo [a] pyrene was itself a carcinogen in 1933, the first individual compound to be so categorized. Coal tar also contains concentrations of lesser-known PAHs, some of which may have significantly greater carcinogenic potential than benzo [a] pyrene. Coal tar is also a powerful irritant; remediation workers and others exposed to it can expect hazards including painful irritation of the skin, and respiratory or vapor intrusion hazards including high levels of benzene and coal tar pitch volatiles.

The third consideration is that coal tar is very persistent in the environment; tars and other gasworks wastes are highly resistant to geochemical weathering (and also to many remediation technologies, such as in-situ chemical oxidation), and do not break down in the environment like gasoline and most fuel oils do, so that tar contamination can still create problems over a century after the material was released.

So, coal tar is still with us, and will be for a long time. On the bright side though, with effort and careful planning, these challenges can be overcome. Many of the “wrong side of the tracks” locations of former gasworks are now prime downtown real estate, and a number of Massachusetts gasworks have been redeveloped as shopping plazas, transportation hubs, and biotech research facilities. As land prices, urban real estate availability, and government incentives continue to drive brownfield redevelopment, hopefully most of the Commonwealth’s former gasworks will see a new life.

Most of our posts here on the OTO company blog discuss what we do at OTO and what we can do for our clients. Every once in a while, though, we like to share something a little more unusual.

As we come to the end of a year, many people find themselves reflecting on prominent events from the year, often including the passing of prominent people. We lost one gray lady with a very mysterious past this year. Engineers, ship aficionados, and Cold War fans may shed a tear over this, but the former Glomar Explorer has been sold for scrap. This is a shame, not only because of the ship’s nearly unbelievable history, but also because in 2006 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) designated this technologically remarkable ship a historic mechanical engineering landmark.


A product of the depths of the Cold War, the Glomar Explorer ranks alongside the Titanic, the battleship Bismark, and the USS Nautilus (the first nuclear-powered submarine) as one of the most unique and storied ships of the 20th Century. In a story that reminds us that the truth is often stranger than fiction, the Glomar Explorer was designed and built at great expense for a single purpose – to recover a sunken Soviet Navy submarine, the K-129, from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

The gestation of the Glomar reads like something out of a spy novel, and indeed, she was ultimately the product of some wishful thinking by the CIA’s Special Activities Division. The K-129, one of the Soviet navy’s most modern ballistic missile submarines, had sunk in 1968 about 1,500 miles northwest of Oahu after an onboard explosion. Although she contained potentially valuable intelligence sources such as cryptographic equipment and nuclear technology, there was no way to recover this possible treasure from the seabed more than three miles below the surface—it was far too deep for divers and adequate remote operated vehicles just didn’t exist yet.

An aerial starboard bow view of a Soviet Golf II class ballistic missile submarine underway.
An aerial starboard bow view of a Soviet Golf II class ballistic missile submarine similar to the K-129 (courtesy Wikipedia).

Then someone had the clever idea of simply hoisting the submarine to the surface. Of course, the idea was simple…. as it eventually turned out, the execution was nearly as complicated as a manned space flight.

From there, as the proverb goes, the weird went pro. The rest of the Explorer’s gestation involved a strange crew of intelligence analysts, eccentric industrialists, oilfield roughnecks, and a dream team of engineers from companies as diverse as Global Marine, then the undisputed leader in deep-ocean undersea exploration, and Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” aerospace bureau. The whole undertaking was given the codename of Azorian, possibly an intentionally misleading reference to the US Navy submarine USS Scorpion, which sank with all hands near the Azores Islands in May 1968. Project Azorian ultimately cost over $800 million at the time ($3.8 billion in 2015 dollars).

Global Marine (now part of the offshore drilling corporation Transocean) had pioneered most of the methods and technologies used in the then-new field of deep-water oil drilling during the 1960s, including the drilling ship Glomar (from “Global Marine”) Challenger, used for the Deep Sea Drilling Program that provided evidence for continental drift. They were the logical choice to design and help operate the specially built salvage ship.

For a cover story, the CIA turned to the eccentric multimillionaire defense contractor (and real-life inspiration for Tony Stark) Howard Hughes. With Hughes’ cooperation, the whole endeavor would be passed off as a testbed for mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Since Hughes was known to be eccentric, obsessively secretive and to embrace odd projects (indeed, at this point the 70 year old Hughes was a paranoid recluse living in a palatial Las Vegas hotel suite), the CIA’s hope was that the American media would take it as just one more strange undertaking from Howard Hughes. The manganese nodule mining story ultimately proved sufficiently convincing that several companies took the idea seriously and invested in nodule mining.

With the design, cover story and CIA funding in place, the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania started construction. Completed on June 1, 1973, the Explorer cost more than $350 million at the time of her completion (or about 1.67 billion in 2015 dollars) and at 619 feet long and a displacement of over 60,000 tons, the Explorer’s massively reinforced hull was larger than most Second World War battleships and aircraft carriers. Although never formally commissioned into the US Navy (hence on paper she sailed as USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer rather than under the USS designation) she remained government property, the Hughes fiction notwithstanding.

Glomar starboard quarter

As originally built, the Explorer broadly resembled an oil-drilling ship, and indeed much of the Explorer’s technology was related to the offshore oil drilling industry—the K-129 would be ‘grabbed’ by equipment lowered down on the end of what was essentially a three mile long string of 30-foot long sections of pipe similar to that used in oil well drilling. On its own, this tool string massed 4,000 tons. The 2,000 ton forward half of the submarine, half buried in sediment at the ocean bottom, would then be dragged free of the muck and hauled up to the surface, one length of drill pipe at a time.

To enable this, much of the Explorer’s midsection was taken up with equipment custom-designed for the submarine recovery, including two towering gantries and a massive pyramidal derrick system that served as both “drill rig” and as a lifting apparatus with a capacity of 7,000 tons. All of this was stabilized in three dimensions on massive gimbals and a hydraulically operated heave compensator, designed to keep the rig vertical and at the same level despite the motion of the sea. The real secret was a 200-foot long “moon pool,” a dry-dock like space where the ship’s bottom would retract, allowing the K-129 to be hoisted up into the Explorer’s hull for leisurely examination.

Portside aerial oblique view of the Explorer, showing her derrick, docking legs, helipad, and extremely crowded deck!
fig1-1-1 glomar ex - side view plan
The Explorer’s starboard profile, courtesy


fig1-1-2 glomar plan view
A plan view of the Explorer, courtesy
Moon pool interior
Interior of the ‘moon pool,’ courtesy

Along with the Explorer herself came a massive (over 2,000 ton) hydraulically operated grapple, nicknamed Clementine, specially designed to grasp the K-129’s hull. To give some idea of the scale of Clementine, each of the eight claws on Clementine was essentially an assembly of I-beams measuring three feet deep and two feet wide, fabricated from two-inch maraging steel plate, and the whole device massed as much as a Second World War destroyer. There was even a special submersible barge, the HMB-1 (for “Hughes Mining Barge”), built just to make sure Clementine (which was built in California) could be brought aboard the Explorer without being seen, with the pickup happening in shallow water off Catalina Island.

The HMB-1 being towed into position

It is worth noting that by the early 1970s very little deep-water offshore drilling had yet been conducted; most offshore drilling was done in relatively shallow waters (less than 1,000 feet deep) such as the continental shelf off Santa Barbara, California. The only offshore project carried out under similar circumstances was the National Science Foundation’s abortive but still epic “Project Mohole” of 1961, which drilled into the seabed in about 12,000 feet of water in an attempt to reach the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the boundary between the Earth’s crust and mantle. The offshore drilling industry may have benefited from some degree of peace dividend from the project, since the Explorer included a number of cutting-edge technologies, including an mechanical pipe-handling system, an automated stationkeeping system designed to keep the “drill rig” within a forty-foot radius despite the action of wind and sea on the ship’s hull, horizontal thrusters to keep her in position, and her long-baseline positioning system, which became standard equipment for deep sea operations until the advent of GPS decades later.

The actual recovery of the K-129 began on July 4, 1974, and right from the start the operation was as technically demanding and fraught with tension as an Apollo moon shot. Not only did the ship itself have to be kept within a 40-foot radius, but the final positioning of the Clementine grapple had to be exact to within only two feet, which may sound like a lot of wiggle room until you remember that it’s at the bottom of the ocean on the other end of three miles of wobbly drill pipe. Very little information had been available for the project engineers to go on, for example what sort of sediments were on the seabed, so there was considerable uncertainty as to whether the recovery would succeed or not. Several baking-hot days went by in the central Pacific Ocean as one 60-foot length of custom-made drilling pipe after another was fed down into the ocean, all the while under the observation of Soviet spy ships. Tense days later, Clementine was brought into position …

Conceptual image of Clementine being lowered from the Explorer’s moon pool

Well it would hardly be fair for me to just tell the whole story, would it? In any case, much of the documentation behind Project Azorian, including exactly what the CIA recovered, remains classified.

I highly recommend the captivating 2010 documentary Azorian: The Raising of the K-129, which includes extensive interviews with several of the engineers who designed, built, and manned the Explorer during her CIA career. The Historic Naval Ships Association ( also hosts an in-depth technical description of the ship (The Glomar Explorer, Deep Ocean Working Vessel, Technical Description and Specification) on their website at, together with some amazing photographs (some of which were used with gratitude in this blog). This document was prepared in 1975, when Global Marine was trying to drum up other business for the Explorer.

The Azorian story was revealed to the public after a series of leaks to the New York Times in 1975, during a period of extreme scrutiny of the CIA after revelations about other secret undertakings. The affair also produced the notorious “Glomar response,” with the CIA responding to Freedom of Information Act requests from the press with the statement that the government would “neither confirm nor deny” details of Project Azorian based on potential harm to national security.

With her cover blown, and too specialized and expensive to repurpose, the Glomar Explorer herself spent the next twenty years in mothballs at the US Navy’s reserve storage facility at Suisun Bay in California, having sailed on exactly one operational voyage and completed exactly one mission. The HMB-1 was likewise kept around ‘just in case’ for a time before being used as an enclosed space for building prototype stealth ships such as the Sea Shadow. The HMB-1 was subsequently sold to a shipyard for use as a floating dry dock for ship repairs.

Sad explorer
The Explorer during her “mothball” years at Suisun Bay

After twenty years in mothballs, Global Marine Drilling (later part of Transocean) leased the Explorer and gave her a $180 million makeover to convert her into an oil drilling ship, replacing her Project Azorian apparatus with conventional modern drilling equipment. From 1998 through about 2013 she enjoyed a second and much longer career as a deep sea drilling ship before being taken out of service, a victim of declining petroleum prices and competition from on-shore production. Sadly, Transocean announced in April 2015 that the old lady with the mysterious past would be scrapped.

The rebuilt Explorer underway to a drilling project.



I keep a medal in my desk at home. I didn’t earn it; it is only an eBay purchase, but it has a lot of philosophical value for me. It is constructed of brass with enameled areas and a cloth ribbon on the hanger. The central detail shows symbols for alpha, beta, and gamma radiation over a drop of blood, and the Cyrillic script around the central device reads “uchastnik likvidatsyi posledstviy avarii” or roughly “participant in the liquidation of accident consequences.” (Apologies to those readers whose Russian is certainly better than mine!) As any watcher of Cold War spy movies will know, in Soviet parlance, to ‘liquidate’ something meant to eliminate, mitigate, or clean up the consequences of something, whether it was a spy or an enormous environmental disaster.

The story behind this medal is one not commonly known in the United States, but it should be, because the story behind it is enough to send a chill down your spine.

The specific term ‘liquidators’ (ликвида́торы or ‘likvidátory’ in Russian) was coined in 1986 to refer to the Soviet soldiers, scientists and others who responded to the Chernobyl disaster—the April 26, 1986 explosion at Reactor 4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine that blew a 1,200 ton reactor cover into the air and spread radioactive fallout, from dust to basketball size chunks of the reactor core, across the surrounding countryside. For my own part, I remember being very upset when the news of the Chernobyl explosion broke, because the news broadcast interrupted the Transformers cartoon I was watching – I was seven years old at the time and my priorities were in line with my age.

The Soviet Union being what it was, most large civil projects, from construction programs to disaster response efforts, were run more or less along the lines military campaigns.  As the Chernobyl disaster progressed, the military element became more pronounced, as the Soviet leadership spoke in wartime terms, of “mobilizing” and “sending troops to the front” —Mikhail Gorbachev himself usually referred to the Chernobyl cleanup as a “frontline action.” At one point, workers hoisted a red flag on top of the reactor building as a symbol of ‘victory’ after finishing a particularly difficult phase of the work. In light of the militarized character and massive resources devoted to the operation, one BBC documentary on the topic subsequently dubbed the Chernobyl cleanup “the Soviet Union’s last battle.”

A view into the exterior of the exploded reactor.

Like any battle, the Chernobyl cleanup had its heroes and its casualties. Many of the first responders, from the plant staff and the local fire department, managed to prevent further disasters such as a giant steam explosion that could have blasted the reactor core completely out of the reactor building and scattered it like radioactive shrapnel for tens of miles. Men worked in areas that still have radiation levels in the thousands of rems (roentgen equivalent man, a unit of measure for radiation effects on the human body). Most of these men died within weeks of radiation sickness; some had to be buried in lead-lined coffins.  A moving essay on the experience of the Pripyat fire crews can be read here.

Memorial to the Pripyat firefighters.

As the scope of the disaster cleanup expanded, the Soviet government called in tens of thousands of men– recent military draftees, army reservists, and thousands of specialists from many fields, including firefighters, oilfield drilling crews, heavy construction workers, hundreds of engineers and scientists, medical personnel, helicopter crews from the Afghanistan war, coal miners, police and even janitors.  Most of these people not only had no experience or training in radiation matters or even in disaster response work, and the vast majority did not even know what they had been brought in to do.  Working conditions were harsh and most of the safety equipment was improvised on the spot, with lead aprons and trucks hastily plated over with hand-beaten lead covers.

The scale of the crisis was unbelievable- by one estimate it cost 18 billion rubles, when the value of a ruble was nominally equivalent to a dollar– and the atmosphere was one of desperate improvisation. The immense steel and concrete sarcophagus that encloses the reactor was designed and built in less than six months, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. The entire population of an area of nearly a thousand square miles—120,000 people—had to be evacuated in a matter of days.  The entire vast Red Forest, which earned its nickname from the color the trees had turned after being struck by fallout, was clear cut in order to bury the trees in massive concrete-lined pits, and to allow dust suppressants to be applied to the soil. Relays of army helicopters airdropped bags of lead, sand, and boric acid into the shattered reactor building to bury the burning core. Massive geoengineering projects were launched, including construction of slurry walls around the plant to limit the migration of contaminated groundwater, and a crew of coal miners tunneled out space for a massive cooling system –sadly never actually needed– beneath the exploded reactor itself, in order to prevent the molten reactor mass from melting its way through to the water table and triggering a steam explosion—the “China Syndrome’ in US slang. One civilian helicopter pilot, Mykola Melnyk, received the two highest awards of the USSR – the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union– for daring precision flying to install radiation sensors on the reactor, flying for hours at a time through the radioactive cloud leaking from the ruptured reactor.  Mr. Melnyk passed away in 2013.


The most dangerous part of the work, the shoveling of radioactive debris from the roof of the power plant building back into the reactor crater to allow construction of the sarcophagus, was done by army reservists in improvised protective clothing, working in relays for shifts less than a minute long, on what was still accounted a virtual suicide mission. A previous attempt to use bomb disposal robots to remove the debris had failed when the radiation levels destroyed the robots’ electronics, and the gallows humor of the Soviet military gave these men the morbid nickname of “bio-robots.”

“Bio-Robots” at work on the roof of the reactor building.

In all, an estimated 600,000 men and women served as liquidators at one point or another, mostly in the summer and fall of 1986, and about a quarter million of them were exposed to their theoretical lifetime safe limit of radiation—or far more. Tens of thousands have already died, and tens of thousands more are disabled by health problems. In recognition of their services, liquidators were awarded the status of military veterans and were granted government benefits such as medical care, though these vary according to how badly the individual was exposed for and for how long, and these allotments may be more or less forthcoming at times, especially given that most of the disaster area and many of the former liquidators are now Ukrainian, and part of the exclusion area is now in Belarus.


Next year, 2016, will be the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster; I don’t know what kind of memorial services are planned, but it surely deserves something.   In retrospect, the United States has never suffered a manmade disaster on the scale of Chernobyl– and we should count ourselves very fortunate.

And yes, I already checked– the medal isn’t radioactive.

I took a vacation to Savannah, Georgia about four years ago– after a couple months of a New England winter, I can’t help but start thinking about memories of warmer places. As with any good vacation, it’s the odd and unexpected things that stick in your head for years afterwards. One of my most salient memories of that vacation was an idiosyncratic concrete-like building material called tabby, which is as much a part of the historic landscape on the southeastern coast of the US as Spanish moss.

Tabbly Blocks
Tabby blocks on Sapelo Island, Georgia

Tabby is a mixture of unslaked quicklime (calcium oxide, produced by burning locally abundant oyster shells at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit), sand, water, and whole unburnt oyster shells which served as a coarse aggregate. The recipe is elementary, with the ingredients mixed in roughly equal proportions by measure (not weight), and then poured into structural forms or cast into large blocks and allowed to dry in the sun for several days before use. The result was a durable concrete-like material, which could be handled like concrete blocks or ashlar stones wherever something more durable than wood was desired along the damp and hurricane-prone southeastern coast. The tabby was then finished with coats of stucco (also a locally-available mixture of lime, sand, and water) to make a smooth surface and to keep water from draining through the porous tabby and eroding the material.

Tabby is also sufficiently durable that the US Army Corps of Engineers was content to use it instead of concrete for an 1880s-era underground bombproof bunker at Fort Pulaski, located between the coast and the riverside port city of Savannah, Georgia (see photo).

Interior of a late 19th Century bunker at Fort Pulaski, Georgia

Coquina, a similar but naturally occurring cementitious material made of geologically consolidated seashell fragments, was likewise used to construct the walls of Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida.

Tabby Economics

Tabby was known in Europe in the early Middle Ages; the now-ruined Wareham Castle in Dorset, England was built of tabby in the early 1100s. It was introduced to North America in the colonial era by English and Spanish colonists in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia and was widely used from the seventeenth century through the post-Civil War era.

Tabby was an ideal building material for the time and place for a number of reasons. Durable building materials such as brick and stone were not locally available on the coast of the southeastern states, which is for the most part a vast sandy plain. Brick and stone had to be imported at a premium cost. The technology for making and using concrete had been lost for a thousand years after the fall of Rome only gradually rediscovered in the early 19th Century. As an interesting aside, this scarcity of durable materials in the coastal South is why 19th-century seacoast forts along the coastline of the southern states were typically built of brick (some 25 million bricks for Fort Pulaski) while those north of Virginia were typically built of granite blocks, since brick was easier to transport and brickworks could be put up wherever there was a suitable clay pit somewhere inland.

By contrast, the ingredients for tabby were readily available—vast buried oyster beds can be found along the shores and islands, with live beds offshore— and although the process was labor-intensive, it was simple enough to mix and pour that it could be prepared by unskilled labor. Thanks to its simplicity and available ingredients, tabby remained in common use until the 1920s, well after Portland cement and concrete became available, although later uses of tabby were apparently more an aesthetic or decorative choice, rather than for structural reasons.

Sapelo Island Examples

The most conspicuous use of tabby I saw during my brief stay was on a visit to Sapelo Island off the Georgia seacoast, where I saw several examples of tabby used for former slave quarters and a mansion, as well as roads where oyster shells were used as gravel. Old tabby blocks marking the ruins of buildings are scattered among the live oak trees along many of the island’s roadsides. The plantation house is now known as the Reynolds Mansion and (along with most of the rest of the island) is owned by Georgia Department of Natural Resources as part of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. The mansion was originally constructed of tabby circa 1802 by Thomas Spalding, an architect and tabby enthusiast, anti-abolitionist politician, and plantation owner who died in 1851. The building was subsequently rebuilt by Detroit-based Howard Coffin, owner of Hudson Motors, in 1912. Richard “Dick” Reynolds, heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune, noted philanthropist, and one of the eventual founders of Delta Airlines, acquired the mansion in the 1930s and renovated the plantation into a sprawling private retreat, leaving it in the form it retains today.

Reynolds Mansion
Reynolds Mansion, Sapelo Island, Georgia

Most of the surviving tabby buildings are now considered historic structures or to have cultural or architectural significance. The upkeep and repair of these buildings is something of an art, as some modern materials may prove incompatible with the tabby and cause the historic material to deteriorate.

Where Does The Garbage Go?

I looked into the refrigerator last week and couldn’t help but make a mental inventory of the fridge contents in the wake of Thanksgiving. We had the cranberry chutney that nobody but me liked, the sweet potatoes that time forgot, and three kinds of leftover turkey. I was pretty sure I’m wasn’t going to get around to eating all of it (wow, that’s a ‘first world problem’ if ever there was one).

It’s not just me. A 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study concluded that on average, Americans eventually throw out about 40% of the food bought and sold in the US, whether from being unsalable, damaged in transit, or after sitting forlorn in refrigerators. “Consumer losses,” or food that goes unused at homes, restaurants, and other dining places accounts for the majority of food waste. That is an enormous amount, both in terms of financial cost and as an amount of material to be handled as a waste.

It isn’t always apparent, but waste management– recycling or throwing away things on a large scale— has always been a major issue in human society. Archaeologists often locate the camps of ancient Neolithic tribes thanks to the enormous mounds of oyster shells and other refuse the ancient humans left behind. In the modern world, an entire industry has grown up around it. It even influences national government policy– most of our federal environmental laws were created to deal with material that was ‘thrown out’ as a waste in one form or another, whether as municipal solid waste (“garbage”), industrial wastewater, hazardous waste, or air pollutants exhausted out of a smokestack.


When I was about four years old, my parents gave me a children’s book named Where Does the Garbage Go? It seemed like a great question at the time, but then again some pretty basic things seem like great questions when you’re four. The part of the book that sticks in my head the most was the concept of separating one type of trash from another—in this case, separating the food waste that would be fed to pigs from broken plates that had to go to the dump. This was the very early 80s, way before recycling had become the fairly routine practice it has grown into. I saw the garbage trucks come to pick up the trash barrels at the end of our driveway every week, and I often rode in my dad’s van or my uncle’s pickup truck to various town dumps to drop off garbage, old wood or carpets, or whatever else we needed to get rid of. As fascinating as ‘grown up stuff’ like a dump was, I was never allowed to get out of the truck because of the rats that lived on the garbage. Still, the question of ‘where did the garbage go’ stuck with me.

Where, How Much, and What Color?

So where does the garbage go go in 2014?

Things have changed a lot since the early 80s, and they continue to change, with an increasing push towards recycling. In the 1990s there were about 150 landfills in Massachusetts, my home state, but as of December 2014, fewer than twenty landfills are still open in Massachusetts.

According to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MassDEP’s) 2013 Solid Waste Master Plan, 42% of the solid waste the state generated in 2009 was recycled, one of the highest recycling rates in the country. This amounts to about 5 million tons of waste, or the annual capacity of a dozen large landfills. The total amount of waste produced, including what was recycled, dropped over 17% between 2000 and 2009 (from 12,960,000 tons to 10,740,000 tons).

About 20% of this total is organic material, much of which is food waste. Massachusetts recently enacted a first-in-the-nation requirement that food waste from restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and other facilities that generate more than a ton of food waste per month be recycled –composted, used as animal food, or sent to a waste-to-energy facility rather than landfilled. This proposition received almost no opposition, and gathered almost universal support from municipalities, the solid waste industry, environmental NGOs, and business associations.  Massachusetts already requires that construction and demolition (C&D) waste, scrap metal, wood waste, tires, and recyclable cardboard and paper be recycled rather than landfilled.

Recycling Pays
The side benefits of this recycling are huge. By 2009, Massachusetts’ recycling efforts had:

  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1.8 million tons of carbon equivalent per year;
  • Saved 70 trillion BTUs of energy, equivalent to the annual energy consumption of more than 12 million barrels of oil or nearly 600 million gallons of gasoline; and
  • Avoided the use of 1.1 million tons of iron ore, coal, limestone and other natural resources. (via Environmental Benefits Calculator, Northeast Recycling Council, April 2009)
  • Supported an estimated 14,000 jobs worth on the order of $500 million in payroll. (U.S. Recycling Information Study, prepared for the Northeast Recycling Council, February 2009.

So for the long run, the question is not so much whether we can afford to keep recycling, as what it would cost us not to recycle.