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All Americans Should Visit a Landfill

There is no “away.”

I double dog dare you to visit your local landfill to see what happens to your garbage. Afterward, ask yourself how you can improve your own waste habits.

Think of touring a landfill as a cross between an interesting field trip and a civic duty. Add to the fun with a side trip to a materials recovery facility also called an MRF (pronounced “murf”).

Each week, you, I, and everyone else toss our solid waste into garbage, recycling, and green waste bins, perhaps without much thought about what goes where. Then, once a week, while we are at work, school, sleeping, running errands, or otherwise going about our day, the contents of these bins are magically whisked away.

U.S. Total Solid Waste Generation 2015 Pie Chart
Percentages of materials that made up U.S. municipal solid waste in 2015 – source U.S. EPA

The problem is that there is no “away” and the environmental impact of landfills is enormous.

Environmental Impact of Landfills

Nowadays, at least in the U.S., landfills operate under more stringent regulations than in the past. Environmental issues vary widely depending on a number of factors including landfill size, location, design, contents, age, and how it is operated and managed.

U.S. Disposition of Solid Waste 2015 Pie Chart
Disposition of U.S. solid waste in 2015 – source U.S. EPA
  • Landfills take up large amounts of land displacing plants, animals, and even people.
  • Slowly decomposing plant, animal and human waste produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2. According to the U.S. EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country.
  • Rainfall and moisture can cause toxic chemicals to leach into streams, lakes, and groundwater killing aquatic life and endangering drinking water.
  • Air pollution is created by trucks collecting and transporting garbage and by dust and other particulate matter churned up at the landfill.
  • When reusable and recyclable materials are buried in a landfill, the energy, resources, and people power that went into making them is wasted.

To me, the biggest environmental impact of landfills is that they enable and even encourage consumerism and wasteful practices. Our waste is conveniently tucked away out of our sight so we do not have to think about it.

The Trash Trifecta

I acknowledge that I might be a wee bit more fascinated by garbage than many people. For instance, one of my favorite nonfiction books is Garbology by Edward Humes. I have also written at least 35 posts that have some connection to waste.

So, you can probably imagine my excitement when, recently, I had the opportunity to visit a landfill, MRF, and an anaerobic digester all on the same day. I was in solid waste heaven.

Below, you will get a glimpse into what happens at a landfill and a materials recovery facility. We will take a look at the anaerobic digester in the next post.

I live in a small town on the Central California Coast in San Luis Obispo County, CA where the entire population is about 285,000 people. My household’s garbage goes to Cold Canyon Landfill the largest of the three landfills in the County. Based on the permitted capacities of the three landfills I estimate that Cold Canyon Landfill takes in 60-70% of the County’s solid waste.

Aerial View of Cold Canyon Landfill and Materials Recovery Facility
This is an aerial view of Cold Canyon Landfill in San Luis Obispo County, CA using Google Maps. The red rectangle shows the location of the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

Although landfills and MRFs operate in a similar manner across the U.S. there are differences and capabilities may vary considerably. For instance, some MRFs have equipment that enables them to process difficult to handle items like single-use plastic bags, but many like the one where I live, do not.

At the Landfill

At the Cold Canyon Landfill, my spouse and I joined students from the California Naturalist Program at Cuesta College. Our host was Mike di Milo. He is the owner of Science Discovery the company that runs education programs on behalf of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority.

After donning electric yellow safety vests, we bundled into several vehicles for a short trip into the landfill and stopped on a section of road that overlooked the day’s activities. Mike had us stand in a group while he shared facts about the landfill and talked about how it works.

Engineering

You may think a landfill is just a pit, but that is not the case, at least at Cold Canyon. The landfill is carefully engineered and monitored.

Cold Canyon Landfill Garbage Dumping Deck
As soon as we stopped on the side of the road, I jumped out and took this photo of the Cold Canyon Landfill garbage dumping deck.

The excavated area currently being used was lined with plastic, clay, and gravel before any garbage was put in it. A drainage system diverts stormwater runoff to a settling pond to keep sediment out of nearby Pismo Creek. The compacted garbage is arranged into layers about 15-20 feet high and then covered with about 2 feet of compacted soil. The top is seeded to grow plants and grasses to reduce erosion.

Operations

Cold Canyon Landfill takes in about 1 million pounds (500 tons) of garbage a day six days a week. Our visit was during the morning before most of the municipal garbage trucks had come by to dump their loads so the pile of garbage was small.

We watched as pickup trucks pulled up alongside big garbage trucks at the edge of the garbage pile and dumped their loads. The bulldozer operator maneuvered nimbly around the trucks staying out of the way but constantly pushing the pile toward the pit. Another heavy equipment operator focused on getting the garbage compacted in a designated area.

On windy days, large litter screens are strategically placed to stop garbage from flying out of the landfill.

At the end of the day, the garbage is covered with tarps until the next day. This practice eliminates the need for a daily layer of dirt allowing the landfill to extend its useful life because there is room for more garbage.

Mike pointed out the above ground pipes running across the top of the covered landfill sections that capture and transport methane gas produced by the landfill. Burning the methane generates power for the landfill and the Arroyo Grande Oil Field in Price Canyon.

We learned that there is a section for collecting separated demolition and construction materials. Lower dumping (tipping) fees encourage contractors to do this, but it is not mandatory. There is also a place on site where residents can drop off their household hazardous waste like used motor oil, paint, and pesticides.

Environmentally Friendly Pest Control

After Mike filled us with information, we had the pleasure of meeting a falconer named Aaron and a magnificent Harris’s hawk.

Falconer Aaron with Harris's Hawk at Cold Canyon Landfill

Aaron cares for and works with this hawk and four other birds of prey. They keep the volume of seagulls flying around the open garbage pile in check. Swarming seagulls can make working conditions unsafe and present a health hazard when they pick up garbage, fly away with it, and leave it somewhere else.

After talking with Aaron and admiring the hawk, we got back in our vehicles to drive over to the MRF.

At the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)

As we drove up to the MRF, I spotted a truck pausing momentarily at a weigh station. Recycling and garbage tipping fees are based on weight. The truck is weighed again after it is empty.

Visitors are not allowed to go into the actual MRF so we gathered in the education center. This space has a large glass window where you can watch the action, interactive displays, and rows of chairs in front of a large movie screen.

Cold Canyon Landfill Materials Recovery Facility Education Center
Education Center at the Cold Canyon Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). The window on the left looks into the MRF. Photo – Science Discovery.

Mike lured us away from the window to watch live action feeds on the screen from various cameras mounted inside the MRF.

A heavy equipment operator used a big clunky grabber mounted at the end of an articulating arm to pick up materials from a huge pile and move them to the conveyor belt intake area. The operator also delicately selected unrecyclable materials like plastic bags, box strapping, and garden hoses and dropped them over a low wall into another pile. Later these materials would be picked up and transported to the landfill.

The facility was a maze of conveyor belts, machines, and bins. Materials were being separated by machines and people. Workers standing in small areas (kind of like waist high turrets) adjacent to the conveyor belts removed trash and recyclable materials and tossed them in nearby chutes or bins.

At the end of the process, separated materials enter a baler and come out as strapped cubes of materials like cardboard, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans. I did not see what happened to glass or paper.

The amount of garbage mixed in with recyclable materials was shocking. Mike said that as much as 25% or more of the materials that come into the MRF are not recyclable. In this facility, it was easy to see that it is not equipped to handle things like plastic bags or little bits of anything.

U.S. Recycling Percentages 1970-2015 Table
U.S. recycling percentages 1970-2015 – source U.S. EPA

The California Naturalists were on a tight schedule so we thanked Mike, carpooled back to the entrance, and dispersed.

My Takeaways

Seeing what actually happens to the contents of my garbage and recycling bins made a big impact on me. Faced with the reality I cannot hold on to my wishful thinking anymore. Here are some of my thoughts.

  1. The people who work at the landfill and MRF work in dirty, noisy, and smelly conditions and they know what they are doing.
  2. There is no one sorting through the garbage mound looking for and setting aside reusable or recyclable materials. Everything dumped on the landfill deck goes into the pit.
  3. The MRF is not a precision operation. Some recyclable materials end up accidentally going to the landfill. Some recyclable materials are contaminated by substances or materials that do not get separated out making them unusable and unsellable.

I came away committed to continuing to find ways to reduce the amount of solid waste our household produces and to sort it into the right bins.

It occurs to me, that every week, you, I, and everyone else have an opportunity to positively impact the environment when we take out the trash.

Featured Image at Top: A woman tossing trash over her shoulder is being followed by a wave of garbage – photo credit iStock/ pick-uppath.

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Investing for a Better World

There is more to investment returns than money.

Imagine what we could accomplish if each one of us invested even a small amount of money towards making the world a better place to live now and in the future.

Before we get started, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that you invest any amount of money in any particular way. It is your money so you are the person best equipped to determine if and how you want to invest it.

My goal for this post is to you encourage you to think about your own investing philosophy and to evaluate whether it aligns with your values and the world in which you want to live.

Until the last ten years or so, I would say my investment focus was on growing my money (return) and trying to avoid losing it (risk). I am not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a rather narrow way of looking at financial investments.

I cannot pinpoint any particular event or even a year when my view of what constitutes an investment began expanding but I think it co-evolved with my desire to live more lightly on Earth.

For instance, in 2013, my spouse and I invested in a rooftop solar panel system for our home. Mostly we wanted to help build renewable energy capacity in our community; however, the free electricity down the road was also an enticement.

We joined the SLO Natural Foods Co-op in 2014 because we wanted to buy and eat delicious organic food and support local and regional farmers and food businesses.

After talking about it for years, in 2015, my spouse and I finally rolled our IRAs out of traditional bond and equity mutual funds into fossil fuel-free socially responsible investments. In this case, our goal was to invest in companies and organizations that are screened for environmental, social, and governance performance as well as risk and return criteria.

Last year, we began looking for a small investment opportunity where we live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. Two weeks ago, this quest landed us in an all day Saturday workshop entitled Align Your Financial Portfolio with Your Values hosted by Slow Money San Luis Obispo.

That day I realized something that I think has been percolating in the back of mind for some time. There is an investment space between charitable giving and traditional investing.

Financial people refer to this as impact and/or regenerative investing. I like to think of it as making-the-world-a-better-place investing.

Before we talk about the workshop and regenerative investing, it will probably be helpful for you to have a bit of background about the Slow Money movement.

Slow Money Movement

The Slow Money movement is led by the nonprofit Slow Money Institute whose mission is catalyzing the flow of capital to local food systems, connecting investors to the places where they live and promoting new principles of fiduciary responsibility that “bring money back down to earth.”

They accomplish this through a variety of approaches including public meetings, on-farm events, pitch fests, peer-to-peer loans, investment clubs and, most recently, nonprofit clubs making 0% loans.

Slow Money SLO Farm to Buyer Mixer Event Sign

Slow Money groups are independent organizations that adhere to Slow Money principles and facilitate investments and loans within their community and region.

I met Slow Money San Luis Obispo founder, Jeff Wade, at a Central Coast Bioneers conference last November and signed up for the email newsletter list. When the workshop announcement landed in my email inbox, I knew I wanted to go so I talked my spouse into attending and signed us up.

Values-Based Investment Workshop

Marco Vangelisti

Our instructor for the day was Marco Vangelisti, a founding member of the Slow Money movement. For a mathematics whiz and former investment manager, he was a surprisingly down to earth and humorous speaker and kept me engaged throughout the day.

Some of the things we learned during the workshop included how in traditional investing a tree only has value once it becomes lumber, how banks create money using accounting entries, and how corporation stock prices are inflated because they benefit from free ecosystem services provided by Mother Nature.

Marco gave us a crash course in portfolio management and due diligence. He explained regenerative investing and gave us examples. We also talked about direct investing, which is where you make an investment directly with an entrepreneur or business.

Investment Compass

Just before lunch, Marco asked us to determine our personal investment compass. He handed out pieces of flip chart paper and colored markers. Using my limited artistic skills, I drew my investment lens (see featured image at top), which are things I consider now when making an investment.

The SLO Natural Foods Co-op prepared a delicious lunch for us and Jeff provided reusable coffee mugs, napkins, and tableware in the interest of making the workshop a low impact event.

Regenerative Investing

The word regenerate means reborn, renewed, restored, reformed, and reestablished. Regenerative systems keep going indefinitely.

When you make a regenerative investment, you are purposefully investing with the intention of generating a positive social and environmental impact.

The main return is not financial. It is things like bringing a grocery market to an inner city food desert, helping a young organic farmer obtain access to farmland, or enabling a school to install solar panels over their parking lot.

Regenerative investing is democratizing investing because it enables people to make small investments (as little as $25) or large ones and gives a wider range of entrepreneurs and businesses access to financial capital.

You might get your money back. You might get your money back with a small amount of interest. You might not get your money back at all. This is true for other kinds of investments, too.

As we were wrapping up the final Q&A session of the workshop, Marco asked each one of us to tell the group one thing that we learned or got out of the workshop.

Colorful Handprints Surrounding Earth
Shutterstock/Holmes Su

The idea that stuck in my mind is that when you make regenerative investments you are investing in “livable future insurance” for you, your children, and people of the future.

I hope reading this post challenged your view of what constitutes an investment return and inspires you to create your own personal investment compass.

Featured Image at Top: This is my investment lens drawing from the workshop.

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