“I’m just a private citizen who wants to know where my trash ends up,” I say to the security guard who looks at me cockeyed, then places a call. “You normally need an appointment, but they’ll see you,” he says. “Follow this truck up the road and hang a left, but watch the light – it’s one way in and one way out.” “Thank you,” I say as I get back in my truck. “Not much to see and it smells like landfill,” the guard says as I depart.
It’s easy to be aware of how much trash I generate on the road: it ends up in the front seat or on the floor until I toss it out. If I camp for a couple days, my awareness is heightened because I have to pack it in and pack it out. So lately I wonder where it goes once I throw it in the rubbish can at the rest stop, gas station or national park. Some will be recycled, I know that, but then the rest goes into landfill . . . I think. My mind settles on this equation:
Recycle = good
Landfill = bad
Planning my route, I see that forty miles outside Las Vegas I drive right by the nation’s largest landfill: Apex Regional. Although it is literally right off the freeway, finding it is not easy – there are no directional signs to the facility, and it is hidden behind hills. When I do find it and gain access, I’m greeted by the facility manager, Tim. “Who are you with?” he asks as we climb into his Ford F-150 to drive deeper into the fill. I give him my “private citizen” line; he doesn’t bat an eye and we embark on a nearly hour-long tour.
As we round a dusty corner, Tim rattles off Apex landfill facts and figures:
- Apex will take one billion tons of trash in it’s lifetime; it has another 300 years left, which means this landfill will be around when there are no others in the country.
- At the height of the economy (2007) it was taking 10,000 tons/day; now it’s down to 7,500 and falling – Tim notes: “one way to judge the economy is to watch how much waste comes in.”
- The landfill takes all types of trash from commercial and residential to medical and solid waste. The solid is mixed with organic and regular and covered over. Medical waste (which is ash from incinerators) is buried in special areas, deep (“although it’s completely benign, we wouldn’t want any of that to escape,” Tim comments).
- The company which owns Apex – Republic Services – just built a new multi-million dollar power plant that will generate enough electricity for 10,000 – 30,000 homes per year just from the methane that comes out of the site. They are considering additional power plants.
We reach the area where live trash is being dug into the ground. Trucks I saw being weighed at the security gate dump their entire load at the top of the heap. From there, “pushers” – basically trackers with special wheels – push the trash down hill where it is mixed with all sorts of, um, shit. In a week or so the entire hill is covered over with rock and ground. Then the process starts all over.
“What’s the number one thing that goes into the landfill,” I ask. “Paper and plastic,” Tim says as we get a whiff of wind blowing off the pusher. I’m surprised: “Don’t we recycle those,” I ask. “Yes, but any molded plastic – those things you have to cut to get the product – and any paper that has food or junk on it – pizza boxes and food containers – cannot be recycled, so it’s buried here.
“That’s bad,” I say out loud. “Is it?” Tim questions. “What worse,” he asks me outlining two possibilities for a basic plastic water bottle (something I use regularly):
Bottle gets collected in a truck and transported to landfill where it will basically remain forever.
- Bottle gets collected in a truck, taken to a sorting facility, sorted, put on another truck, then a boat, shipped to China – or some other country – where it’s smelted. Then it’s put back on another boat and shipped back to the US.
“Eventually that bottle will end up in here, it’s just a matter of time,” he notes as we drive to the top of the heap where the pushers push stuff below. “We can’t smelt plastic in this country because of the EPA standards, so we ship that – and the bad air quality – oversees.” I sit back for a moment; my mind settles on a new equation:
Recycle = not so great
Landfill = not so great
Reduce and reuse = better option of the three
As we start to drive down, Tim notes a collection of toilet bowls off to the side of the road. “The Tropicana remodeled and wanted us to recycle these – Ha! How do you recycle toilets?” No one wants them, so we use them to help control the dust around here – we try to reuse everything we can.” And they do – even the road in and out of the facility is made mostly of stuff from the landfill.
Overall, I am impressed by what I witness; they are progressive in processing junk, like generating power from our waste. “We get a lot of people who think we should not have landfills, but we’re just not technologically advanced enough to be at that point yet. Maybe someday,” Tim comments as we arrive back at our starting point.
By the time I leave, I have a better idea of where my trash goes (although I would be curious to trace the route and cost of a recycled water bottle). I also have better appreciation for the work and problems people like Tim face in facilities like this all over the country. They work hard to deal with the crap most of us would rather not think about.
Oh, and one more thing: the guard at the security shack is correct – landfill does have a distinct odor. It’s more intense and dense than the garbage dumps I remember visiting as child. But then, I guess we, as a country, are too.