Waste not, want not: How the landfill handles trash challenges

The sun glitters off a plethora of glass shards in the blackened soil on the steep north slope of McElmo Creek just outside Cortez. Rain and wind uncover rusted tin cans and other durable debris scattered throughout this modern-day midden, which holds fascinating clues to the local culture of the 1970’s and 80’s, when city residents regularly discarded household trash there.

montezuma county landfill

Partially filled with air and water, a capped water bottle stays inflated through the 3000-psi pressure of the trash compactor that bales refuse at the Montezuma County Landfill. Plastic water bottles are taking up increasing amounts of space in landfills everywhere. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

Today, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Solid Waste, the average person in the United States generates 4.5 pounds of garbage per day, more than twice what was produced when that site was the unofficial city dump.

And the content of that trash has also changed, infused with much more plastic – bags, bottles, and other packaging. Additionally, there is a huge amount of electronic waste, including old televisions, computer monitors, and cell phones.

Tightly regulated

Deborah Barton, manager of the Montezuma County Landfill, bristles when anyone calls the current waste depository a “dump,” because it is definitely quite different from a place where trash is simply discarded with no regard to its content.

Ever since a decision by some forward-looking Montezuma County commissioners to purchase a state-of-the-art baling machine for the landfill in the 1990s, its operators have worked hard to stay abreast of new methods of recycling or disposing the various materials that are brought to the site south of Cortez.

Barton, a certified instructor of landfill-management classes in North America, said the landfill is tightly regulated by EPA requirements regarding liners, water control, dust and greenhouse gases.

“We have to document everything we do and plan for maintenance for 30 years after it shuts, after the last piece of the trash it put on the site,” she said during an interview with the Free Press.

The landfill is an enterprise business, meaning it does not rely on taxpayer subsidies, Barton said, with a million-dollar annual budget. “We have to earn our way with balance sheets, profit and loss. What is earned is spent on operating the business. It is not funded by taxes or mill levies.”

Tim Bates, operations manager and foreman, said when they needed a new $35,000 dozer, they borrowed the money from the county, “and paid it back with interest. The county made money from the landfill.”

Barton said she believes the landfill is well-run. “We’re in the black. Our books balance. No personnel turn over and we’re well-run under environmental rules.”

Barton has also served on the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America Board of Directors since 2002. In 2005, she received recognition as the outstanding SWANA member for Colorado.

A well-managed landfill with services that are up-to-date under environmental law helps attract companies looking to relocate. If the EPA ever finds cause to assess fines against the landfill for violating laws, the cost would go back to “every single person that put an ounce of trash in the landfill,” Bates said, “but, really, they’re going to go after the companies that can pay.”

Barton said that’s why it’s important that the companies “feel comfortable with us.” “Our industrial clients, like Kinder Morgan, Williams Energy, Waste Management, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and many more actually audit the landfill (and we have always passed,” she said.

“As an example, an inspector from one company said we were well-organized and have all the services and equipment,” she added. “ He gave us a 5A rating, which, he said, was rare for him.”

Oodles of bottles

Trash is America’s biggest export, according to Edward Humes, author of “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” He writes, “Wastepaper and scrap, plastic bags, napkins, paper, plastic utensils become instant trash the minute we buy it. It’s then exported as trash from our landfills to China, where it is re-cycled into new products, shipped back to the US and it begins again.”

The high cost of such throw-away consumerism hides in landfills, said Humes. “But it doesn’t disappear. It drags down our economy, our environment, and our future.”

Calling the bottled-water industry the grandfather of wasteful industries, he notes that on an average day, Americans toss out 60 million water containers — 694 a minute.

Bates is well aware of the problem of plastic water bottles. He began working at the Montezuma County Landfill in 2002. In his second year he was operating the industrial-scale equipment that crushes an average 22 bales of compacted trash per day, each weighing 1.2 tons, from the loose refuge brought into the bays by individuals and contract haulers.

One day, he recounted, as a bale came extruding out of the bin, he noticed an egg sticking out of a corner edge on the bale and reached for it, thinking it must be hardboiled to have survived 3000 psi of pressure and 11-gauge galvanized strapping.

“I pulled it out of the bale but it slipped from my hand and crashed on the floor, splattering raw egg all over my boot,” he said. “I thought to myself that if a raw egg could survive that pressure then how many near-empty plastic bottles with the lids screwed back on will go through the whole cycle, pressure, strapping and all, and remain inflated? I knew it was a lot. It takes up a lot of space and time before that bottle breaks down.”

Money from sewage

Worldwide, another enormous problem of waste managers is dealing with human sewage. In 2010, Barton and Bates finished and passed intense courses in Landfill and Biosolid Compost Management certification. Soon after, they began a collaboration with the Cortez Sanitation District to manufacture biosolid compost on-site, using the “grit” (biosolids) from the district and carbon sources (wood chips) stockpiled at the landfill.

According to the Northwest Biosolids Management Association, modern treatment processes and strict controls on discharges to sewers contribute to high-quality, recyclable biosolids. A typical treatment process takes the water from homes, businesses and industry to a pre-treatment source and from there to a treatment process during which the grit/biosolids are collected and stabilized by beneficial organisms that decompose, then digest the solids.

The stabilization reduces odor and destroys harmful pathogens contained in the biosolids, which can then be recycled directly onto soils in the forest or on agricultural land. The material can also be composted for landscaping and gardening. Environmental and public health is ensured through monitoring of the biosolids application site and extensive research.

In a statement, Alan Rubin, senior scientist with the Water Environment Federation/ U.S. EPA explained that, “the EPA’s 503 regulation concerning biosolids use is based on sound science and supported by twenty-five years of research, operating experience and an extensive risk assessment. The regulation provides for the safe recycling of biosolids and is fully protective of human health and the environment.”

Barton said the training she and Bates received “is really more a white-collar application of waste-management biology, microbiology and mathematics – an essential application of formulas and environmental, biological sciences to understand the microbial processes that qualify the finished compost for sale to the public.”

Now that training is being put to use, and Bates has designated a location for the composting on the top tier of the landfill where sanitation-district trucks dump the grit/biosolids. In the first step of the process the grit will be mixed with carbon material and laid in wind rows, exposed to sun (and rain if there is any) to assist in the decomposition.

The recipe is one-fourth grit/biosolids to three-fourths carbon material. “I need more carbon,” Bates said. “It’s a desert climate and carbon is harder to get here,” he said as he pointed to three small mountains of chipped wood and branches accumulated over the past year.

“I am looking at 1,760 tons of biosolids per year, which means I need 8,280 tons of carbon material to work the material into a product that the consumer can safely use.”

The compost is destined for four markets – landscaping and gardening, forestry, soil improvement, and agriculture. In oil and gas country such as Montezuma County, the microbes in compost can degrade some toxic organic compounds, including petroleum, and therefore the compost is often used to restore oil-contaminated soils.

The process takes only four months from the initial mix to the finished product and Bates is cautiously optimistic since this first batch will also be his steepest learning curve.

“I expect the actual ready date to be in October,” he said, “and that I’ll have no problem selling what we make.”

The batches will be sold only in cubic yards at a price far lower than bagged compost sold at retail outlets. “It’ll be a lot less expensive than the bagged compost, but a buyer needs a truck or trailer to haul it,” Barton said, adding “Customers are already asking to be put on a waiting list.”

Electronic debris

Consumers don’t consider the eventual disposal of an electronic device at the point of purchase, but the waste-management industry does. A recent National Safety Council study predicts that over 300 million personal computers will need to be recycled over the next four years. The EPA estimates that 80 percent of all discarded computer systems find their way into landfills. Personal-computer equipment, which is as much as 6.3 percent lead, is hazardous waste that can poison and overwhelm landfills. Proper computer-recycling procedures are essential because computer equipment also contains cadmium, mercury and precious metals.

Beginning in July, Colorado state law will prohibit haulers from taking e-waste.

The state already bans these items from the landfills if they come from commercial, industrial or institutional sources.

“That’s the law we have complied with for 10 years since the Colorado Office of Energy Management helped fund a special turnin event for Southwest Colorado in 2002,” said Barton. “We implemented this program knowing that it would become law for everyone someday.”

Since then, Montezuma County Landfill hosts two e-waste events per year during which electronic trash can be turned in for a modest disposal fee.

In 2012 the e-waste program collected nearly 12 tons of material, which included 266 commercial/residential monitors and TVs and 184 scanners/printers. The e-waste is then shipped to Natural Evolution in Tulsa, Okla., for recycling. That business is reportedly dedicated to recycling with a minimum carbon footprint.

Rebates for refrigerators

All material disposed of at the county landfill is solid waste. However, some materials are handled differently. Appliances containing freon or ammonia must be disposed of by a licensed/certified technician.

Freon, which creates holes in the ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere, is banned from improper release to the atmosphere. In order to comply with federal and state laws, the landfill requires a completed certification statement be provided.

A few years ago, Empire Electric saw an opportunity to work with the landfill by creating an appliance turn-in event that targets refrigerators and freezers.

Bobbe Jones, assistant member-services manager, said any member of Empire Electric may turn in up to two appliances at the landfill. Each appliance requires a certificate that can be picked up at the Empire Electric offices in Cortez, Monticello or Dove Creek and brought along with the appliance. Co-op members also get a $50 credit per appliance (up to two only per year) applied to their electric bill. The landfill then contracts with a local firm to remove the freon from the old fridges and freezers.

Money credited back to Empire Electric co-op members participating in the program over the last six years totaled $56,550, or 1,130 units. The high point was 2010 when 298 units were turned in.

The event begins in Montezuma County on Earth Day, April 22, running all week until April 27, during regular business hours at the Montezuma County Landfill and at Bob’s Place, an appliance-repair business located at 804 S. Broadway in Cortez.

The turn-in program is also available at the San Juan County Fairgrounds on Saturday, April 27, in Monticello, Utah, and help will be available to unload appliances.

Barton noted that both Empire Electric and the landfill have received national recognition for this program. “It’s four efforts for the price of one,” she said. “Energy conservation, metal recycling, hazardous refrigerator safety and illegal dump clean-up where people are taking the refrigerators and freezers off of illegal dumps on public lands.”

Another spring event coordinated by the landfill and the city is the Cortez Clean-up Week, May 6-11. Trash haulers will take yard and disposable household trash for no additional charge. Information will be posted on the city web site, cityofcortez.com.

Solutions to some landfill issues remain elusive. Such problems include hazardous household waste (such as paint, turpentine, and strong cleaning fluids), and prescription drugs. Both require emergency responders on site and in the case of prescription drugs, disposal requires coordination with local law enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“If somebody drops off a glass jar and nobody knows what’s in it, we call on the emergency responders to get us through it. That’s expensive,” said Barton.

Mesa County, Colo., has a household hazardous- waste facility that costs $500,000 annually to operate. “That’s half our budget,” she said.

From April 2013.