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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Minimalism – Procrastination

Action begets action.

Once you reach the almost inevitable procrastination phase of becoming a minimalist, accept it and then try taking a small action to overcome your inertia. It worked for me.

Footprint on Earth Globe - Carbon Footprint

People decide to become minimalists living happily with less stuff for a variety of reasons. Mine is the desire to live more lightly on Earth. Take a moment to remind yourself of why you are on your own minimalist quest.

If you are like many if not most aspiring minimalists, you will likely begin by divesting yourself of things you own that you no longer need, want, or use.

Simultaneously, you will probably have to change your shopping and buying habits and perhaps revamp your gift exchanging philosophy. If you don’t, you may find yourself in an infinite loop of acquisition and divestment.

The divestment stage could take you a few weeks or several years. My spouse and I are taking the multi-year approach for a variety of reasons some of which I explained in a previous post entitled Minimalism for Couples – Getting Rid of Stuff. We made a lot of progress in years one and two and then procrastination set in.

Some stuff that we had decided to part ways with somehow began settling into our garage refusing to leave. Worse, I was allowing it to reside there.

Why Do People Procrastinate?

Procrastinators Meeting Postponed Sign

Of course, I am no expert on why people procrastinate, but my impression from reading about the topic over the years is that like many things involving humans, it is complicated.

There are many reasons you might put off doing things that you could or should be doing now. Ramifications for procrastinating vary in severity from significant to none.

For instance, say you are facing a looming deadline for a project at work. You need help but you are embarrassed to ask for it. Stressed out you decide to scroll through your social media feed looking for cat videos and other distracting content. If you miss the deadline, the repercussions could be minor or major. It probably depends on things like the importance of the project, your track record, and your boss’ management style.

Sometimes, dilly-dallying might be considered a good thing.

In this scenario, it is Sunday. Your laundry has piled up to the extent that no one in the family has enough clean socks to make it through next week. Instead of doing the laundry you choose to spend the day with your kids at a nearby park eating a picnic lunch and tossing a Frisbee around. Everyone has a great time. The repercussions are minor. You either do the laundry that night or everyone selects their least dirty pair of socks to wear the next day. (Minimalists do not go out to buy new socks).

For me, having stuff hanging out in my garage was low on the scale of the bad consequences, but once I overcame my inertia, I was able to enjoy the benefits of taking action.

Minimalists Procrastinate, Too

Our garage houses my spouse’s prototype shop, my car, gardening equipment, kayaking gear, and stuff from when our kids were children (another future divestment project). Our garage does not have room to spare.

At least six months ago, we had placed several items for donation in our garage intending to move them out quickly. These consisted of two teak steamer chairs with cushions in excellent condition, a somewhat faded market umbrella with a heavy metal stand, and parts for three multi-tiered wire storage baskets on wheels.

The only space to temporarily stage these items was a 4’ x 4’ space at the front of the garage near the cupboard where I store my gardening tools. With little clearance between the pile and the cupboard, it was not easy to get things out or put them away. (I forgot to photograph the pile.)

Somehow I had gotten it into my head that I wanted these items to go to the nonprofit Habit for Humanity ReStore in the “big” city located about 35 miles from our small town. It was my understanding that a ReStore takes in donated home improvement items and then resells them to the public but I had no idea whether they would accept our items or not.

I said I would find out. I even put it on my “to do” list.

Months later the stuff was still sitting in the garage annoying me every time I wanted to get out a shovel, hoe, or loppers. I kept saying to myself and sometimes to my spouse, “I need to call the ReStore to find out if they will take this stuff.” But, I did not do it.

More time passed until not long ago on a warm day in April, I wrestled my shovel out of the gardening cupboard so I could go dig up some invasive thistles. When I turned around, I looked at the donation pile and sighed for the umpteenth time.

Then it struck me. Someone could be relaxing in one of the steamer chairs right now sipping a cold glass of iced tea under the umbrella—if we had actually donated them.

That was not motivation enough for me to pick up the phone and call the ReStore, however, I did make a note on my calendar for the next Thursday when we would be going into the city to run errands and participate in an SLO Climate Coalition meeting. I thought we could easily swing by the ReStore to ask them if they would take our items.

Habitat Restore in San Luis Obispo, CA

We did stop by the San Luis Obispo South ReStore on the way to the meeting. The friendly gal manning the checkout counter said they would take our things and asked if we could drop them off.

The next Thursday we were scheduled to attend a monthly meeting of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society, so I wrote ReStore on my calendar. The afternoon of the meeting we wiped the dust and cobwebs off the items, loaded everything in the back of our 1999 Chevy Tahoe, and headed for the ReStore.

The guy running the store that day was not too happy that we arrived after the volunteers had gone home, but he did seem pleased with our donation items. When he saw the steamer chairs he said, “We can sell these in a heartbeat.”

He asked if we had photos of what the baskets looked like put together. Thanks to my spouse we did. I said I would email the photos the next day (I did).

As we were driving away, I felt relieved and happy. We had cleared out space in our garage but more importantly, it seemed likely that our chairs would soon find a new home with people who would appreciate and use them.

That accomplishment reinvigorated me. Now, I am ready to tackle more divestment tasks.

Overcoming Procrastination

Red Reset Button

Committing to one small action and not trying to tackle the whole project at once made it possible for me to clear up my inaction logjam.

Stopping by the ReStore on the way to somewhere else was easy and it did not necessarily mean I had to do anything further. Fortunately, that step encouraged me to take the next one.

If your minimalism divestment process is stalled, perhaps one or more of the ideas below will help you get moving again.

  • Accept that you have procrastinated.
  • Give yourself a break and do not beat yourself up for not taking action sooner.
  • Imagine your items being used and enjoyed by someone else.
  • Break down the project into smaller parts.
  • Pick an easy thing to do first.

Okay, now it is your turn.

Decide on one small and easy action you can take that would put a dent in your divestment roadblock even just a tiny bit. Then do it. Repeat this process as necessary until your minimalist journey is back on track.

Featured Image at Top: Coffee cup, pen, and a piece of paper with the words “The best way to get something done is to begin” on a wood table top – photo credit iStock/marekuliasz.

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