Down in the Dumps

“It’s a million dollar idea,” Mike said, “We’ll buy up the abandoned landfills and mine out the metals for recycling and the organics for compost.” Active landfills in Florida who lacked soil for cover, were doing this and using the compost mixed with sand for daily cover. We talked it through, but neither of us had any money, so we never acted on it.

It was a good idea, though. Old landfills tended to receive everything someone didn’t want, and the older ones wouldn’t have received much chemical waste or plastics. We had occasionally gone up to the hundred-year old Leadville landfill and dug around looking for old glass bottles. Water seeped into the old landfills because they were just covered with soil (if at all), so the organics tended to decay after about twenty years making a rich, compost-like dirt. Glass and metal aged, but were still intact.

Newer landfills, those operated since the 1970’s, had requirements for cover, liners and gas control. They also restricted what could be received, and limited the receipt of industrial wastes. That was good (fewer toxics), but bad in that less moisture means less decay takes place. I’ve seen a driller in a well-run landfill pull up a piece of 1950’s newspaper that’s still readable.

In the old days, most landfills were dumps. Sometimes there was garbage collection, but mostly people and businesses hauled their own trash to the dump. Old landfills had an area off to the side where you could put possibly-usable stuff for others to take. After it sat a while, it went into the dump.

My friend’s father used to embarrass her frequently with his trips to the local dump. They lived on the hillside above the road to the dump, and he would sit on the porch and watch people go by hauling stuff to dump. If he saw something interesting, he would chase after them and bring it home. Today we’d give it to Goodwill or other groups who might find someone who wants it. Occasionally, the old ratty sofa sits on the curb with a “Free!” sign until it is hauled away.

But there was also lots of nasty stuff taken to the dump. Sometimes sewage, carcasses, industrial and medical wastes, and rotten or rotting foods. Flies, mosquitoes and rats were problematic disease vectors, and prior to cover requirements, the standard vector control method was to burn the trash periodically. In fact, many people burned their own trash in the backyard ‘ash can’, subsequently picked up by a waste hauler, but this was not really a good idea from an air quality perspective. Also, since many dumps were in old gravel pits or ravines, they contributed significantly to groundwater contamination, as well.

Today, my community has separate trash and recycling containers, and I compost kitchen and yard waste. Trash goes to the nearby modern landfill, and the recycling goes to a processing center where the good stuff is separated from the stuff that can’t be used. Depending on the market, some recycling pays. Scrap metal is usually worth something, but paper often isn’t. Long-distance transportation costs are generally the reason that much recyclable material ultimately goes to a landfill, and Colorado has a steel mill, but no paper mills.

So if you’re interested in reducing your waste, you should reduce what you obtain that isn’t recyclable or reusable. Paper, plastic and cardboard can be recycled, but may not be. Create your own compost pile for kitchen and yard waste. Even passive composting produces useable dirt after a year or so. Buy products without unnecessary packaging. There’s a lot of focus on bottled water and grocery bags these days, and maybe that’s a place to reduce waste. However, I’m not sure used grocery bags are a landfill problem, but agree they can be a littering problem.

If we have a waste problem, household waste is likely the minor part of it. Waste from construction and industry far overshadows domestic waste. Industrial wastes are usually recycled, solidified and landfilled, or incinerated in specially-permitted facilities. Construction and demolition wastes may go to specifically-designated landfills or recycling uses, such as clean fill used to eliminate voids and holes.

Interestingly, closed landfills may end up being good things. Many are distant from development, and once reclamation is complete, may offer reasonable natural habitat. Revegetation with native plants encourages sustainability of the cover and food for birds, small animals and insects. Greening of the sites is beneficial to nature and to humans. Even a small amount of time outdoors in nature relieves stress and makes us healthier, so we need to expand our opportunities for that experience.

Closed landfills can make good parks and serve other human uses. Parks and soccer fields already exist on closed landfills all over the place. Even with limited moisture, waste decay can create methane that can be used to produce small amounts of power at the landfill. In addition, landfills may provide an attractive site for solar farms. Since the closed sites require long-term management anyway, providing a beneficial use is just basic common sense.

Concerns were expressed about releasing buffalo at one reclaimed site, since it was thought that the juvenile buffalo would congregate on the high spots (the landfills) to fool around (as teens do) and wallow, which would compromise the cap system. Although large animal use is not encouraged, the vegetation on the cap may indeed attract deer or elk.

For me, I guess being ‘down in the dumps’ isn’t a negative thing. It may be rife with opportunity. Remember, a landfill is a terrible thing to waste! (Okay, I apologize….)

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