WASHINGTON - The U.S. Navy is buying 22 shipboard plastic waste processors, but its recycling program is on hold while officials unravel problems with separating out the metal, paper and food that make up three-fourths of what is supposed to be just plastic. For more than a month, recycler Earth Care Products of Tennessee Inc. has had on its back lot about 6,000 pounds of inch-thick, 20-inch-diameter processed disks. The disks were produced during testing of the Navy's processor prototype, which began last fall on board the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
However, said Tom Brock, Earth Care's chief operating officer, the disks contain only about 25 percent plastic. The remainder is ``kitchen knives, batteries, paper, food wastes, everything,'' he said.
The Navy announced Aug. 9 it will pay more than $330,000 for 22 shipboard plastic waste processors from a five-company consortium headed by Westinghouse Electronic Systems Co., based in Baltimore. Unfortunately, the Navy has allowed sailors to put ``anything that has some plastic component and is found on board ship'' into the pro-cessors, said Brock, whose business is based in the northwestern Tennessee town of Sharon.
As for the plastic collected so far, ``It's out there in the hot sun, drawing flies. I told them not to ship any more here until we decide what to do with this.''
The plastic disks have not been moved since the second week in July.
The Navy hopes to have all 350 of its surface ships outfitted with at least one processor by the end of 1998. In all, the Navy has spent or expects to budget $238 million to equip surface vessels with the processors, ac-cording to Westinghouse marketing manager Phil Wright.
None of the $7.3 million Westinghouse contract is earmarked to improve the purity of plastic waste collected through the program. The funding allocated so far covers spare parts and ``auxiliary components for surface ships,'' according to the bid award announcement.
The plastic is collected as part of the Navy's continuing ``Don't splash plastic trash'' program, which dates from 1988.
Brock's company contracts as a ``preprocessor'' for plastics manufacturer Seaward International Inc. of Clearbrook, Va., to produce 9,000 linear feet of 10-inch-diameter plastic cores for plastic pier pilings, some of which might include shipboard wastes. Seaward spokesman Robert Taylor said his company and the Navy ``are not far enough along to get a real good understanding of the total content'' of the disks, but added the types of plastics contained in the disks are of ``a pretty broad spectrum.''
Brock said Navy officials have ``completed the job they were intending to do, which is to stop dumping plastics at sea.''
``What they've got now they could put in a landfill, and they've completed their mission,'' he said.
The new processors shred, melt and sterilize all types of plastics into disks as large as 21 inches in diameter, 1-3 inches thick and weighing 15 pounds. These disks will remain on board ship for the duration of its cruise, which frequently are of indeterminate length.
But because of the amount of metal and foreign material in the disks, ``You're not going to be able to use a standard granulator,'' Brock said, adding that the cost for his additional sorting and cleaning ``is under discussion.''
Brock added, ``I've got a way to handle the material if they want to pay for it. But they're wanting me to do it for free,'' he said.
A Navy spokesman said the Westinghouse contract is proofof the service's intent to be the world's only maritime fighting force whose surface vessels are in complete compliance with pollution standards that prohibit jettisoning plastic into international waters. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Ken Ross said warships are, by international agreement, now exempted from this standard, but, ``Our Navy is the only one to go to this length to get to compliance.''
But the Navy, Brock said, has not settled on what it defines as plastic. Better shipboard discipline to separate usable plastics would go a long way to improve a product manufactured fromthe Navy's plastic wastes, he said.
Westinghouse joined with Penn State Tool and Die Corp. of North Huntington, Pa.; Tooling Specialists Inc. of Latrobe, Pa.; Kuchera Industries of Johns-town, Pa.; and All-Bann Enterprises of Anaheim, Calif., to build the initial processors. Final assembly will be at Westinghouse's Marine Division in Sunnyvale, Calif.
David Schugt, manager of systems development and government relations for Penn State Tool and Die, said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., ranking Democrat and former chairman of the House's Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, represents the district that includes Latrobe and Johnstown. Murtha was active in securing the contract.
Ross said the processor reduces plastic volume aboard ship at a ratio of 30-to-1. Each person on board a U.S. Navy ship produces about 3 pounds of solid waste a day, of which about 3.2 ounces is plastic, he said.
The first processors will be in regular use by July 1, 1996. About 25 percent of the fleet is expected to have the processors installed by March 1997, half by July 1997 and 100 percent by the end of 1998.
A Naval Sea Systems Command official noted an aircraft carrier produces about 200,000 pounds of plastic waste in a six-month deployment.