Trash talk: Landfill does what it can with what it’s given (Monday, January 24, 2011)

Rebecca Martinez/staff 

From atop a million tons of garbage, you can see pretty far.

“Nothing beats seeing the sun rise above the mountains from the top of the landfill,” said Greg Thomasson, director of Solid Waste Management at the Augusta Regional Landfill.

The landfill sits on a fraction of property — about 700 acres — owned by Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County. It’s operated by the Augusta County Services Authority.

There are seven grass-covered mounds on the grounds already, time capsules of local garbage from before 1998. And then there’s the current land fill, which will be made up of seven individual cells and built upon incrementally.

The authority is filling cell numbers 1, 2 and 3 concurrently and expects to fill and seal them in about two years. Then it will move on to cell 4, which takes up 17 acres and will take five years to fill. And so on.

“Really and truly, the landfill has about 30 years to fill to capacity,” Thomasson said.


Reinventing the Pyramid

It’s not just a pile of garbage.

“You fill a landfill in a very orderly progression,” Thomasson said, explaining that the trash is piled, and compacted incrementally, layer by layer. “These things are very well engineered.

“It’s kind of like building the pyramids. You had to have a pattern.”

To build a landfill, you dig down, sometimes more than 100 feet and over an area of several acres. You engineer it for geotechnical and stability factors. You line each cell with clay, then a hard plastic shell, and install pipes to drain any groundwater that might seep in. And then you bring in some garbage.

An 81,000 pound Caterpillar compactor drives over the area on enormous metal wheels with dull spikes that smash and shred the garbage underfoot.

“You’re always trying to make sure the trash goes in as small an area as possible,” Thomasson said.

“Space costs money. One of your biggest costs is building in here. We want this to last as long as we can.”

You build compact levels of garbage, reinforce the sides and continue until it tops off at a 33 degree slope. Then it’s sealed off with a plastic cap and planted over with soil and grass.

“It’s actually entombed.”


Sustainable Living

Of the garbage the facility receives every year, about 25 percent is recycled. About 100,000 tons more goes into the landfill. That number fluctuates, tracking the economy.

“When the economy is high, you throw more things away. You buy more things with packaging. You’re building more,” Thomasson said. “When the economy is down, you get less waste.”

It’s still a busy facility. In addition to handling weekly trash and recycling pick-up, it sees about 1,000 customers each Saturday.

Last April, Steve Grande, director of the Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement at Mary Baldwin College, led his students in a dramatic recycling exercise. They dug through the garbage from four campus dormitories and were able to recycle about 40 percent of what they found.

Lots of paper. Lots of plastic bottles.

“There’s such a throwaway mentality on our society. So much of what we could be reducing we don’t need to be purchasing in the first place. Some of what we saw was probably only possessed for just minutes.”

Grande said he’s impressed with the landfill and its efforts to be environmentally responsible.

Near the entrance are receptacles for various types of paper and plastic, and a collection container for salvageable items to go to Goodwill. There’s a small mountain of tree waste — your Christmas tree might be in there — which gets chipped and reused on site for traction in the land fill or to cover up the garbage every night to protect it from birds and rodents.

Any contaminated water that leaches out of the landfill is treated. The landfill is also in negotiations with a private contract to collect and purchase the landfill gas — a mix of methane and carbon dioxide — released from the organic matter decomposing in the mound.

“I don’t think we always give credit to how much thought goes into the way everything’s done,” Grande said.

Still, the enormous amount of trash that keeps coming concerns Grande, as does the 30-year timeline.

“Even though they’re trying to be thinking out as long as possible … what are we leaving for our children and grandchildren? That’s not a real sustainable solution.”

For now, Thomasson and his colleagues keep working with what they’re given — that is, what we throw out.

And Thomasson is optimistic.

“In 30 years, you never know what the technology will be,” he said. “We have plenty of land we’re not using.”

About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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