Apex Regional Landfill: Visiting my Garbage (and other crap)

“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.

Front Seat Trash

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.

Trash Can - Where does it go?

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):

  1. Plastic Water Bottle

    Bottle gets collected in a truck and transported to landfill where it will basically remain forever.

  2. 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.

Waiting to be Picked up

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.

Does God Happen in Vegas?

Driving Interstate 15 towards the Las Vegas Strip, I pass a green billboard with the letters G – O – D spelled out in white.  Next to the word is a large white arrow pointing up to the sky.  The sign seems to suggest that God is watching, even in Vegas.  But it also suggests that God is somewhere else – up there, away from us – something with which I disagree.  I believe God is everywhere and in everything.  This belief is about to be put to the test.

Dancer for Money

My mind runs through all the stereotypes it holds of Sin City: greed, sex capital of the world, money, corruption, mob, underbelly of society.  I realize that I’m holding dueling ideas: 1) that God exists everywhere, and 2) that Vegas is these things that could add up to being ‘Godless.’  In psychology, this conundrum is called cognitive dissonance, which holds that it’s uncomfortable to maintain conflicting beliefs.  So it makes me wonder: in a city where gambling and money reign supreme, will I find God?

As I check into the New York New York Hotel and Casino, I argue with the front desk clerk over the extra $20 she wants to charge to get into my room an hour early.  I’m already upset at the mandatory $15 “resort fee,” which brings the real rate to $85 per night, plus taxes.  I hate being nickel and dimmed to death.  Many hotels do this in Las Vegas . . . it feels underhanded.   I mentally place one check in the “Godless” column.

New Vegas

I settle into my room, which is modern and clean, and try to nap, but feel awake.  Blaming the oxygen in the suite, I grab camera and hit the Strip late afternoon.  I haven’t been to Vegas in over five years and the city has literally exploded with new buildings.  They shoot up like the skyscrapers of Manhattan or Chicago.

Glass enclosed walkways connect the avenues, allowing traffic to flow below.  The streets are full of people from all walks of life, all parts of the world.  Street performers dressed in costumes – Hello Kitty,  a group of Elivises, Super Mario Brothers – line the walkways urging tourists to snap pictures with them, for a fee.  Panhandlers sit on corners with hat in hand.  Some wave signs which claim “no job, no house, need money” or simply “please help.”

Music blares from unseen speakers.  Billboards compete for attention – some mounted to trucks, which drive endlessly around congested streets.  Casino signs flash feverishly and hired help offer free ‘this-or-that’ to step inside . . . if even for a moment.  Bobbles and boobles are for sell on every corner.  Mexican men snap little postcards at people as they walk by claiming “girls direct to you in under twenty minutes.”  Check two, “Godless.”

Eifel Distorted

I walk and expose the city through my lens: Buildings, people, street scenes.  My favorite subject is the reflection I see in the glass.  At a street corner, I snap the Eiffel Tower, distorted and doubled.  Next, clouds in the new Trump building.  Then, the people behind me, just their legs contorted into their heads.

As I walk, I note that this city has captured the best of what the world has to offer and brought it here.  Want to see NYC; it’s here.  Paris, Rio?  They’re here.  Even magical, mystical lands – Treasure Island, Excalibur – are here and available for everyone (provided they pay).  It’s like Vegas is simply a small planet earth – just the highlights.

Like a ton of bricks, it hits me – what I think is a universal truth – everywhere I walk, everything I do, everything I see, Vegas (aka the Universe) is simply reflecting back what is being projected.   When I look into a window, it reflects me back.  When humanity walks by, their movements are mirrored.  Palm trees, clouds, casino/condo high-rises, cars, people, everything – it’s all reflected back by the city/Universe.

Weirdo

I crouch down to take a shot of myself in a display window next to a sign that reads “weirdo.”  I take the exposure . . . then another epiphany – what I see in the pane is a choice.  It’s not the true me – it’s whatever I think of myself: weird, normal, fat, thin, good looking, ugly, healthy, sick, happy, sad.  What other people see in the window is different and really none of my business.

This brings me to my next thought: if I choose to see the world as Godless, corrupt, and dangerous, then that is what the world is going to be.  If however, I choose to see the world as full of God, beauty, and love, well then that is what the universe will reflect.  So it’s not so much whether God is or is not present in Vegas, but it is whether I choose to see God here; in the casino, the homeless, the prostitute, the gambling or drug addict, the greed.

With this revelation, my whole experience changes.  Things that were void of meaning and relevance come alive.  The city which was Godless becomes a reflection of God.  People become well intentioned and human (and thus trying to survive just like me).  I fully enjoy my time in Vegas.  That night I sleep well, despite the oxygen and energy of this microcosm of the amazing world in which we live.

The next morning, as I leave the city heading north on Interstate 15, I pass another billboard attached to and facing the opposite way of the G-O-D arrow.  This one reads: “with our thoughts, we make the world ~ Buddha.”  I laugh to myself at how the Universe and God works in my life, thankful to have had these experiences.

For more photos of Las Vegas –> Click Here