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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Three Easy Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

One small step leads to the next one.

Drastically reducing your single-use plastic bag waste is easier than you may think.

Consider the purpose of single-use plastic items like bags, food wrappings, bottles, cups, plates, bowls, lids, straws, stirrers, cutlery, take-out containers (including foam), shipping envelopes, and all the things you, me, and everyone else buys either in a store or online that come in plastic packaging inside a cardboard box.

By design, a single-use plastic (or paper) item is intended to be used once and then disposed of often within minutes of opening it or using it for the first time.

Convenience items like single-use plastics have gotten way out of control and are trashing our planet, literally. Tossing things in the garbage does not make them magically disappear and putting them in a recycle bin does not wipe out the environmental footprint of making disposable products and recycling them.

If you agree, even a little bit, decreasing your own single-use plastic bag waste is a good place to start.

My spouse and I probably began our quest to reduce our contribution to single-use plastic bag waste in 2010. That is the year I joined the Sierra Club and received four roll-up reusable bags as a gift for becoming a member (I still use them).

We took the low hanging fruit approach meaning we tackled the easy actions first. This resulted in a significant reduction in our use of plastic bags over the years.

In this post, I hope to demonstrate that it is possible to make reducing single-use plastic bag waste part of your normal life.

Before we move on, let’s do a quick refresher on why you and I should care about single-use plastic in the first place.

Why is Single-Use Plastic a Problem?

I think the United Nations report entitled Single-use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability gives a good worldview of the issue and provides some thoughts on how to address it (the whole report is worth reading).

Global Primary Plastics Waste Generation, 1950-2015 Chart

A few of the environmental problems associated with single-use plastic include:

  • Most plastic is made from petroleum and natural gas.
  • Plastic packaging makes up nearly 50% of all plastic waste in the world.
  • Of all the plastic produced in the world, only 9% of the 9 billion metric tons made so far has been recycled.
  • Plastic does not biodegrade but slowly breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments that find their way into the soil, water, land and aquatic animals, and humans.
  • When plastic waste is burned, it releases toxic gases like furan and dioxin.

Dealing with plastic waste is left up to individuals like you and me and cash-strapped municipalities. Economic damage to tourism, fishing, and marine ecosystems runs in the billions of dollars every year and will continue to grow as the problem of plastic waste grows.

If you are interested in learning more about plastic waste and its impacts on people and the environment, you will find links in the resources section at the end of this post.

Next, we will explore what you can do about single-use plastic waste specifically plastic bags.

Reducing Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

Personally, I could never see the appeal of using plastic bags for groceries because they seem small, difficult to put things into, and constantly in danger of disgorging their contents into the trunk of your car. We were paper bag users. I know this is a post about plastic but single-use paper bags also have a significant environmental footprint.

Reusable Shopping Bags

We soon realized that our roll-up Sierra Club reusable shopping bags worked great for everything except buying groceries. I missed flat-bottom paper bags.

Flat-Bottom and Roll-Up Reusable Bags
We obtained these flat-bottom and roll-up reusable bags in 2010 and 2011 and we still use them.

Fortunately, during an out of town visit, I spotted a flat-bottom reusable bag at an REI store for $1.00 so I bought a couple of bags to try. These bags have both shoulder straps and handles, which I like, so I bought several more. When I joined the Audubon Society in 2011, they sent me four reusable shopping bags with flat bottoms and sturdy handles sporting pictures of pelicans and owls. We added a few more roll-up bags to complete our reusable shopping bag stock.

If necessary, I wash the grocery bags in the kitchen sick or toss the roll-up bags in with a load of laundry and then put them outside to dry.

If you can remember your keys and your wallet, you can learn to remember your reusable bags but we decided to make it easy for ourselves. When not in use, most of the grocery market bags hang out in the trunk of our car and we keep a couple stashed in the hall closet. Roll-up bags reside in a bowl near the front door and in the car door pocket.

On the rare occasion that I do not have a bag with me at the store, I carry the item out naked.

You do not need to make a large financial outlay to obtain reusable bags. Many stores offer low cost or free bags with their name and logo and nonprofit organizations sometimes give them out at events.

When the single-use plastic bag ban came to our town in San Luis Obispo County, CA in 2012, it was a non-event for us.

Reusing and Reusable Produce Bags

Not long after the shopping bag conversion, I purchased a dozen or so reusable and washable mesh bags in an effort to reduce our use of plastic produce bags. We are still using the same bags years later.

Reusable Mesh and Plastic Produce Bags
We supplement our washable mesh produce bags with rinsed out and dried single-use plastic bags.

The mesh bags are excellent for a wide variety of whole fruits and vegetables including, onions, apples, potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, and green beans. I do not like using the mesh bags for vegetables that tend to be wet from misting in the produce section like lettuce, green onions, and carrots because they get other things in my shopping cart and grocery bags damp.

That led me to begin rinsing out plastic produce bags or zip-top bags and hanging them to dry on various things around the kitchen like the utensils sticking out of the ceramic crock next to the range.

East DIY Plastic Bag Drying Rack

Once the bags dried, I stuck them in one of the grocery bags along with the mesh bags.

This method worked but it was not convenient so my handy spouse made a DIY plastic bag dryer that was so simple I could probably have made it.

Reusing plastic bags is not an ideal solution because they are still plastic bags; however, it is a step in the right direction.

Bring Your Own Containers

Several years ago, my spouse and I joined the SLO Natural Foods Co-op so we could buy organic food that is grown and made by local and regional farmers and food producers.

The Co-op’s bulk bins are a major attraction housing a wide array of food items including flour, granola, almonds, dried cranberries, rice, sugar, and Zen party mix (now a favorite snack).

Various Sizes of Reusable Plastic and Glass Containers
Brown rice, flour, raisins, smoked paprika, pink salt, sugar, and brown sugar in a variety of reusable plastic and glass containers.

Scooping rice into a plastic bag from the bulk bin seemed to defeat part of the purpose of buying in bulk so we began bringing our own containers. At the store, you weigh the container empty and put a label on it so the checkout clerk knows how much weight to subtract from your purchase of granola or kidney beans. Now, when we get home from the Co-op, we unload our bulk purchase containers from our reusable shopping bags and put them directly in our kitchen cupboards.

Not long ago, I decided to try a similar strategy at the farmers market.

I was tired of bringing home food like mushrooms and strawberries in plastic or cardboard containers, storing the empty containers on the kitchen counter, and then returning them to the farmers the next week.

One week I took my own containers with me and asked the farmers if they would mind if I emptied their containers into my containers. No one said no. A couple of farmers thanked me and said that packaging is expensive so reusing it saves them money and they could refill them on the spot for other customers.

Granted you do have to take containers with you to the grocery market and farmers market, but I think it is worth it.

I hope you can see how you can easily reduce your own single-use plastic bag waste with a little effort and that you decide to try one or two of the above ideas or come up with your own.

While I was writing this post, I thought it would be fun to assess our multi-year single-use plastic bag waste reduction effort. This led to an unexpected discovery that you can read about in the next post if you want to.

Featured Image at Top: Single-use Plastic Shopping Bag Flying through the Air with Trees and Sky in the Background – Photo Credit iStock/Spiderstock

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