Treasures Troves of Trash: The Quirky Side of SEMASS

When you’re in the business of trash, there are certain things you can expect to encounter on a daily basis – a steady, almost constant stream of incoming rubbish, the ubiquitous stench of garbage, rats, an ample supply of earplugs, and the formidable ambience of millions of mechanical parts enclosed in metal that are designed to haul, grind, shred, and incinerate. At least it is so when you’re working at your SEMASS, Covanta’s solid waste to energy plant in Rochester.

Over at SEMASS, 3,000 tons of waste from Cape Cod, the southeastern part of the state, and greater Boston are processed daily and burned to generate 25 percent of the renewable electricity in Massachusetts and enough to power 75,000 homes. It’s where your trash is a renewable treasure – energy. But sometimes that trash yields a treasure of an entirely different kind.

If it has been brought into our existence, eventually you and I will throw it away. After that, we won’t think much about it anymore, unless of course that thing you threw away was a diamond ring and you didn’t throw it away on purpose.

It happens, says SEMASS Community Outreach Manager Patti Howard, but often the item is considered lost forever. Except that one time she can recall when someone called SEMASS to report the missing ring. With a location of origin and a description of the trash bag, that ring was miraculously found.

“That ring was the needle and this place was literally the haystack, but they found it,” said Howard.

SEMASS is crammed with quirky, seemingly unimportant trivia. And although it won’t reduce carbon emissions, some might argue that this stuff is just as interesting as waste-to-energy production.

As trash is taken in at SEMASS, it travels through a number of different levels of sorting – blowers separate the paper from the plastic, and magnets grab a hold of all metals and pull them out.

All sorts of metallic bits and bobs are processed and removed from the waste stream. SEMASS even has an eclectic collection of mixed items on display in its main administrative building, which immediately grabbed our attention during a recent tour of the facility back in December.

Medallions, buttons, fancy-shmancy hair pins, chains, keys, lockets, trinkets, religious and non-religious bric-a-brac, police badges, thimbles, jewelry, and coins.

Yes, coins – as in money – both American and foreign, lots and lots of coins.

According to Howard, during the first few years at SEMASS the facility was collecting close to $500 a day in coins that people have thrown in the trash. Money that people literally have thrown away. These days the facility still collects anywhere from $100-$200 in coins every day. (Which is more than I collect from my job every day.) Howard said Covanta has, in the past, donated the money and is looking to establish other ways to use the surplus windfall of sorts, such as scholarships or other funds.

Walking around the massive 95-acre site is a humbling experience. One is filled with the awe of humankind’s ingenuity and at the same time frightened by its foreboding nature – the deafening clatter of long conveyer belts echoing from inside tunnels of metal and steel, the thunderous perpetual boom of generators, trucks approaching, backing up, and appearing to head straight in your direction…

It’s an inhospitable environment for a vulnerable human with only a hard hat and a pair of earplugs to mitigate the racket. But behind its merciless outer layer, SEMASS and the surrounding land appears almost as if many a world depends on its existence – worlds other than our own civilized world that craves more renewable energy. Let’s take rats, for instance.

Yes, where there is trash, there are rats. And although I personally only spotted one that day, it was apparent that SEMASS had taken on an entirely new role once it started processing all of our solid waste.

The trash feeds the rats, the rats feed the hawks, hi-ho the derry-o, the rats feed the hawks. Hordes of hawks hovering in the sky overhead, and even a couple bald eagles soaring in circles above, a welcoming sight amidst the throngs of seagulls surfing on the backs of trash trucks that enter and exit and chasing after any litter that is blown across the pavement.

Ah, nature. The only other municipal waste facility in the Tri-Town that could rival the natural wildlife found at SEMASS is the Marion wastewater treatment plant lagoons.

Facilities like SEMASS are magnificent marvels of invention, but that story I’ll save for another slow news week. For today, I leave you to ponder a few of the wonderful ways SEMASS transforms our waste for our benefit, not to mention our entertainment. But in the meantime, might we suggest ceasing the practice of throwing money into the trash?

Fancy a tour of SEMASS? Patti Howard can be contacted at

By Jean Perry

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