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.