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April 22, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Driving into Columbia’s landfill facility, visitors encounter what looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. Heavy machinery rumbles on the horizon as it compacts waste into a hillside. Refrigerators and other defunct appliances sit compressed into neat cubes, and the occasional flare of burning methane gas erupts from towers in the distance. The only thing missing is a leather-clad Mel Gibson and a gang of pursuing outlaw bikers weaving between piles of refuse.
Despite appearances, this is not a dystopian wasteland — it’s the City of Columbia Sanitary Landfill. Located on the town’s northeast outskirts, the facility is known for its progressive innovations, green programs and environmental concerns. But things haven’t always been so forward- thinking. The facility has undergone a pretty dramatic evolution since its 1986 opening, and it wasn’t long ago that the landfill bore a more accurate resemblance to the Thunderdome of Mad Max fame. According to Landfill and Recovery Superintendent Mike Symmonds, there was a time when disposal regulations weren’t as stiff, and the area’s previous landfill received its fair share of strange garbage — including body parts from hospitals.
As society became more environmentally conscious, the facility saw increases in Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Natural Resources regulations, and its operators are now conscious of the need to protect the surrounding ecosystem. “When I first started out, you basically had to cover the trash (with dirt) at the end of the day, and that was about it,” says Richard Wieman, Columbia’s solid waste utility manager, who has been with Columbia Public Works since 1975. “Now everything is regulated.” Everything from the air to the surrounding water is monitored. If you can quantify it, there’s more than likely an acronym-friendly governmental program overseeing it.
The 560-acre facility originally operated as a coal mine, but the city converted the land into a solid waste facility in March 1986. The Columbia location opened on the same day that another landfill — one north of Columbia, near Rocky Fork Lake — closed.
Each year, Boone County, including Columbia residents and businesses, sends approximately 150,000 tons of waste to the facility, where the game of landfill Tetris begins. Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources only permits the site to fill 107 acres, and the space is already about half full. In addition to acreage restraints, the waste can only be filled to a height of approximately 130 feet. The allotted space has been divided into six cells, the fourth of which is currently being filled.
Arguably the biggest problem concerning space in the landfill boils down to people throwing away recyclable goods: A waste audit found that 40 percent of the material compacted into the cells could have been recycled, and even at a distance, the gleam of aluminum cans and plastic bottles is painfully obvious. Once the waste is brought in, there is no practical way at the Columbia facility to sort through it for recyclables, and once it’s compacted, there’s no way to remove them.
With only about 28 percent of residents recycling, Columbia falls just below the national average. “That number shocks a lot of people,” says Layli Terrill, Columbia’s waste minimization supervisor. “People think we’re really progressive, but we are just about average.” Laziness, bad habits and just plain ignorance keep Columbia from rising above the pack. “A lot of people don’t know that certain things can be recycled,” Wieman says. “Everyone thinks of an aluminum can, but they don’t always think about fiber products like cardboard or paper or even tin cans. These can all be recycled.”
Whatever the cause might be, the solution is generally agreed upon. “We just need more education on the subject,” Symmonds says. Columbia is currently running a yearlong pilot program in the northern part of the city to determine whether giving residents recycling bins instead of the blue bags yields higher recycling rates. Although it is too early to draw any official conclusions from the test, route drivers have noticed higher numbers of both recycling households and material collected. Columbia resident Liz Deken, who uses social media to promote environmental messages, believes that the bins are a much more convenient and sustainable alternative to the traditional bags. “With the bins, you don’t have to remember to go pick up bags or worry about them getting torn open,” says Deken, who used similar bins while living in St. Louis. “Plus they are reusable, and isn’t that the whole point?”
Columbia’s efforts to increase recycling rates are matched by an equally difficult struggle to profit from recycling, and despite what people might think, the landfill is not immune to the effects of the less-than-healthy economy. “A lot of people don’t think that the economy would affect a landfill,” Symmonds says. “But we were probably one of the first to feel the effects.” In fact, the material recovery facility, which collects and sorts all of the city’s recyclable materials, has yet to see a profit from recycling. It came within $10,000 of breaking even in 2007 — until the economy began to plummet, along with the resale price of recyclables. It hasn’t been that close since, but Symmonds has hope for this year. “An increase in recycling would help,” he says. “We would have more product to sell.”
With real estate running out quickly, the facility has made an effort to reclaim some of its dwindling landfill space. Last April Columbia obtained a permit to convert one of the landfill cells into a bioreactor. A conventional cell, also known as a dry tomb cell, prevents any moisture from entering, as specified by Department of Natural Resources regulations. The new bioreactor cell intentionally adds water to the waste in order to speed up decomposition: This changes what would normally be a 100-year decomposition process into a five- to 10-year process and frees up a considerable amount of landfill space along the way. Symmonds originally estimated the landfill would reach full capacity in 2018; he now expects the bioreactor to extend the facility to 2024. There are only 13 operating bioreactors in the country — they serve as a sort of experimental study. With positive results, Symmonds hopes the Environmental Protection Agency might allow more widespread use of the technology.
But in addition to generating more space, the increased speed at which the waste decomposes in a bioreactor results in a more rapid release of naturally occurring methane gas. In the past, this gas was collected by a system of pipes and burned off. Although burning the gas was less harmful to the environment than simply releasing it, more could have been done. In 2006, the landfill partnered with Columbia Water and Light to implement a biogas energy plant, which opened in June 2007. The methane gas, previously burned, is now pumped to two large engines that can produce up to 2.1 megawatts of energy, which can power approximately 1,500 homes in Columbia. “It’s taking something that was essentially waste and converting it into energy,” Wieman says. “It’s a renewable energy source. I think trash is pretty renewable in the United States.”
America’s heavy consumer culture and obsession with convenience produce a never-ending supply of junk that has to go somewhere. Columbia has already seen drastic changes in the past 24 years, but with advances in technology, the process can become even more efficient. “When technology catches up to the point where the material can be recycled in a usable fashion, people catch on,” Wieman says. With more participation in recycling and the use of new equipment, the landfill’s life expectancy can continue to grow, and Columbia can live up to its green reputation.