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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Why You Should Ditch Your Cable Company

Liberate yourself.

Do yourself and the planet a favor by breaking up with your cable TV provider. This simple action could impact your life in unexpected yet positive ways.

Calling the cable company to cancel your service is an easy task. However, if you are a long-term television aficionado, like me, it may be surprisingly difficult to actually do it.

When I signed up for cable TV many years ago, I thought it was a good value. I had the basic package, which did not include movie or sports channels. After several years, my cable company began continually raising prices without providing any additional features or services that appealed to me.

This ticked me off.

Periodically, I called the customer service department threatening to cancel my cable subscription. The company usually responded by giving me a promotional rate for six months or a year, but later my bill would go up again.

The cable box irritated me, too. It was an energy vampire sucking electricity even when I was not watching television.

Double Plug with Switch - Entertainment Center

At one point, I began turning the cable box off at night. The cable company shut off my service. When I called to complain, they told me that cable boxes need to be on standby power all the time to receive system updates.

The poor quality cable boxes required replacement every year or so resulting in excessive e-waste. This could have been avoided if the company had chosen to provide good quality equipment. Televisions and remote controls will become e-waste, too.

I canceled my cable TV service in February 2018.

It took me a few months to realize that ditching cable was having a positive impact on me that went far beyond saving money and reducing e-waste. I hope that after you read this post, you will consider giving your own cable company the boot.

Breaking Up with My Cable Company

I admire people that do not watch television or streaming media but I knew I was not ready to go cold turkey. That meant finding an alternative to cable.

My two parameters were that I wanted to keep the cost low and I did not want to buy any equipment that would later become e-waste. Fortunately, we already had an Internet connection in our living room and a cable that connects my laptop computer with the television.

After researching streaming services online, I opted to sign up for Netflix. This was in September 2016.

I got used to carrying my laptop downstairs, plugging it into the television in our living room, and then taking it back upstairs to my home office.

A year later, I was still paying for cable and Netflix and using both services.

Finally, late in 2017, I decided it was time to get rid of cable.

But I delayed doing it because I wanted to be able to watch Super Bowl LII on cable in February 2018. I cannot explain my fascination with football but I have been a Raiders fan since I was a kid.

My Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Raiders Baseball Hat and Black Coffee Mug
This is my well worn Breast Cancer Awareness Raiders hat and game day coffee mug.

A week or two after the game, I called the cable company and canceled my service.

In the back of my mind, I knew I needed to work on a solution for streaming football games but that was months away so I felt certain I would have it resolved before the 2018-2019 season.

You know where this is going, right? I did nothing.

My Cable-Free Plan Hits a Snag

On Monday, September 10, 2018, I was looking forward to watching the Raiders and Rams on Monday Night Football. I mentioned this to my spouse who replied, “You know you don’t have cable TV anymore, right.”

Oh, no!

I figured it would be easy to find an NFL streaming service. I was wrong.

The NFL channel would allow me to watch all the games—hours after they had been played. Other services offered some games but couldn’t guarantee they would not be blacked out. Plus, I would have to purchase a new electronic device to mediate between the Internet and my television.

Then I discovered that CBS offered an online subscription that would enable me to stream live TV (including football games) and watch previously aired TV show episodes using my laptop and Internet connection.

The CBS service would limit me to games on CBS but I supposed I would get at least one or two Raiders games and probably some good matchups between other teams. The clincher was that Super Bowl LIII would be on CBS in February 2019. I signed up.

I did get to watch the Raiders and some other good games, especially during the playoffs. My sister invited me up to her house for the weekend to watch the Super Bowl, where I consumed my annual batch of onion dip and a bag of Ruffles potato chips.

Unexpected Cable-Free Benefits

It took me several months to realize that not having cable gave me a surprising sense of freedom.

Of course, I could watch Netflix or CBS anytime I wanted, but I only like to sit at my desk to work, read the news, or do research. Even though it takes just a few minutes to hook my laptop up to the television, I found that I did not do it every evening. Somehow, adding that minuscule amount of inconvenience broke my automatic turn on the TV habit.

I was liberated from the constant barrage of television advertising. During football games, I reinstituted my policy of getting up and walking around or doing quick chores during commercial breaks.

iStock/GoodLifeStudio

No more ads telling me what I should look like, what I should eat and drink, or what products I need to buy. I am elated that I am no longer assailed by messages trying to convince me that I need to buy whatever is being advertised to be happy, beautiful, or a good mother. I do not miss the contrived commercial settings that try to make us believe that these are regular people living their everyday lives. I am relieved that I do not know what model of iPhone is currently for sale. I have no idea what products I am missing and I like it that way.

Now that I have the perspective of over a year without cable TV, I have a deeper appreciation of how commercials infiltrate every aspect of our lives and our relationships with other people. The force field of advertising is hard to overcome, especially after decades of indoctrination. However, it is worth the effort.

In addition to the feeling of freedom to be myself, getting rid of cable has given me a boost on my journey to be a minimalist living happily with less stuff. Everything you and I buy, own, and use in our daily lives has an environmental impact so curtailing our possessions helps us each live more lightly on Earth. I think this is a good thing.

It is Your Turn to Go Cable-Free

I do realize that my current streaming services could add commercials in the future. That is what happened with cable TV. If and when advertising starts showing up then I will look for other alternatives. I am also cognizant that things could get out of hand if I decided to add a lot of other streaming services, which would add complexity and cost.

I hope you will at least consider how you might benefit from a life without cable TV and the commercials that come with it.

Who knows, maybe someday I will completely give up television in all its forms.

Featured Image at Top: Birdlike links flying away to freedom through a hole in a chain link fence – photo credit iStock/Eoneren.

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