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The Landfill Wars

Guest blog by Don Willis

I have been to recycling conventions all across the country. It never fails that all of them have programs dedicated to landfill operators. Somehow recycling companies have not yet gotten the message. Landfill Operators are NOT recyclers. They may dabble around the edges of recycling so that the various levels of government give them a ‘feel good’ badge for attempting to be green, but the bottom line is that it is clearly becoming an us versus them scenario as we talk about ways of getting to zero waste.

I met with a landfill operator last year, at the request of a community that wanted us to build a recycling center in their city. The city had a seven year agreement with a waste collector. The waste collector also owned the landfill. It was not possible for me to build a facility in their city unless the waste company agreed to work with us on tonnage. I told the city it would never happen, but at their urging I agreed to meet with the Landfill Operator. He was pleasant and polite, but the meeting lasted only a few moments. He very politely stated that, “We’re in the landfill business. We get paid to bury trash, not recycle it.” He was absolutely correct. Landfill Operators are not in the business of recycling. If we ever needed to be hit over the head with that we just were in Florida. Landfill Operators from around the state lobbied tirelessly to get the yard waste ban overturned and they were successful. Yard waste, which prior could not be buried in landfills in Florida, could now be sent there under the guise of increasing methane production at bio-reactor landfills.

In case you don’t know bio-reactor landfills are landfills at which you see the pipes sticking up out of the surface. These pipes collect the methane that is created when organic matter in the landfill breaks down. This material creates methane because there is no oxygen in the landfill. If there were the decomposition process would yield carbon dioxide instead of methane. In the presence of oxygen decomposition yields many beneficial items. In the absence of oxygen, we get dangerous and deadly landfill gases that pollute our air and cause health problems for any nearby residents. The purpose of collecting this gas is an attempt to avoid these problems and make a few bucks selling the gas to a power company.

When a company owns a landfill they own a limited shelf life commodity. A landfill will only hold a certain amount of waste. If you can only hold a specific volume of waste, then the profit mechanism becomes a factor of time. A landfill that will hold X number of tons that takes 30 years to fill, is more profitable if the landfill operator can fill it in 20 years, instead of 30. This paradigm is the antithesis of the desires of the local community. In the example I used above the landfill at one time had belonged to the community. They sold it to the company that now operated it. They spoke to me of how many years of life the landfill had as if to get across the point that they had no concern at where the waste of the city would need to go for the next 50 years. They had no clue that the landfill operator had begun receiving waste from other communities. The landfill operator had reached out and had begun receiving waste from cities as far as 200 miles away. A landfill operator is sitting on a volume of space. The quicker the operator can fill that space the more profitable the space becomes.

As recycling rates continue to rise across the country landfill operators are fighting back. In state after state they are lobbying to remove landfill bans on items so that they can increase the tonnage they receive. They speak of how they are doing it so that they can make their ‘bio-reactors’ more productive but the bottom line is they are in the business of burying trash, not recycling. Landfills need to become a thing of the past. They no longer serve any useful purpose. Much like the buggy whip, they served a purpose in their day, but no longer. We have the ability to recycle 100% of our waste. Why do we still tolerate an industry that pollutes our air, soil, and ground water? It isn’t time to remove bans on items going to landfills. It is time to expand the bans on items going to landfills. It isn’t time to embrace bio-reactor landfills. It is time to see them for what they are, the best that can be made of a bad situation. Don’t let a landfill operator tell you that landfills are safe. They are not, cannot, never have been, and never will be safe. The manufacturers of the liners they use admit that the liners have a limited life and are subject to puncture. That means that every landfill using liners today will pollute our groundwater just as much as the estimated 50,000 closed landfills that dot our country. Every liner will leak, every liner has or will have punctures, and every liner will break down. When they do every drop of rain that falls on them will become contaminated with thousands of chemicals on its way to our ground water.

We are not in the same business. We need to understand that and take it to heart. We need to get as good at lobbying as they are. Recycling may be winning the battle for the hearts and minds, but the landfill operators are winning the lobbying war.

Don Willis CEO
Green USA Recycling, Inc.

Landfills and Buggy Whips

Progress is never without a price. What we gain on one hand we lose on another. The hope is that when the dust has settled the gains outweigh the losses. The manufacturers of buggy whips didn’t want to go out of business when the automobile arrived on the market. They fought to maintain their market share, and dismissed the automobile as a fad that would pass. It did not pass however, and transportation was revolutionized. The same holds true for manufacturers of vacuum tubes, 8-tracks, VHS tapes, floppy discs, and the list goes on and on. With each leap forward we leave the old way of doing something behind so that we may move onto the better way that technological advance allows us to enjoy.

Since humans have been walking the earth we have been digging holes and burying our trash in them. The basic technique has not changed for thousands of years. You would be challenged to find an industry that has been around longer than the landfill industry. The way we bury has changed a bit since ancient time. We use liners, we mine methane, and we try to mitigate ground water contamination. But the basics are still the same. Dig a hole, fill it with garbage, then cover the hole.

There are more than 3,000 landfills operating in the United States. These landfills are operating under current EPA standards that try to minimize ground water contamination. There are over 50,000 closed landfills that meet no such requirements and have been potentially contaminating ground water for decades. The California State Department of Health estimated that 67% of these old landfills are emitting toxic solvents and gases. The California State Water Resources Control Board found that 83% of these old landfills contaminate ground water supplies.

So, with all the nasty things that go along with landfills, why do we still continue to bury our trash? The answer is two-fold. Just as the buggy whip manufacturers didn’t want to go out of business, neither do the owners and operators of landfills. Cities and towns used to operate their own landfills. From the ‘law of unintended consequences’ bag came the result of the EPA constantly upgrading the requirements governing landfills. Towns and cities began to sell or contract their landfills to private companies. These companies are to quote a landfill manager I spoke with a few months ago, “In the business of burying trash. We’re not interested in anything that will divert that tonnage out of our landfill.” This is where technology meets the buggy whip. Recycling is diverting more tonnage from landfills each year. As a result landfills are fighting back to maintain their tonnage needs. The ability to divert over 90% of the current MSW and C&D going into a landfill into useful products exists today, yet the will is not there because, by and large, communities no longer control the operating landfills. They do control the closed landfills that have long been out of operation. Many of these are off the radar and local officials have no desire to put them ‘on’ the radar and be subject to current EPA standards. A city government official I spoke with a few months ago said, “The EPA doesn’t know about our old landfill so we wouldn’t be interested in emptying it. If they found out about it, it would cost us a fortune.”

We have the ability to not only stop using landfills, but to empty the landfills that dot this country. What we need is the will to do it. With approximately 50,000 closed, old landfills and assuming a typical landfill life span of 40 years, taking in a conservative 65,000 tons per year, valued on the low side at $90 per ton once processed, we have buried treasure of 11.7 trillion dollars beneath our feet. This does not include the trash located and being buried daily in operational landfills today. To process this trash in a 50 year time span would require 4,000 recycling plants employing 900,000 people operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Additionally the health benefits gained by the people living near these old landfills once the landfills are emptied cannot be calculated. It’s time we moved forward. It’s time to lay down the buggy whip that is our antiquated landfill system. It’s time we put people to work. It’s time we really started to recycle our waste, instead of just enough to say we’re doing it.

Guest blog by Don Willis of GreenUSARecycling.com