Dane County Landfill Tour

This week I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Dane County Landfill. One of the tenants of permaculture is “care for the earth,” and I believe it’s important for everyone to understand the impact that our garbage has on our community. Everytime we go to the store and buy packaged goods, toss old belongings that we no longer want, or use wasteful products like disposable diapers, we are adding volume to acres of disposed solid wastes. I appreciated seeing and learning about this process to help be more mindful about reducing my environmental impact.

Garbage trucks arriving at the Dane County Public Landfill weigh their solid wastes and pay for their disposal.

Garbage trucks arriving at the Dane County Public Landfill weigh their solid wastes and pay for their disposal.

I was impressed by the processes used by the landfill to efficiently manage the solid wastes they receive (recyclables and compost are taken elsewhere). Dane County waste management operations and residents deliver solid wastes to the facility where it is weighed and payed for, at $48 per ton. Dane County taxpayers do not pay anything towards this facility. The incoming weighed solid wastes provide all the revenue for the landfill to operate, and the facility does not try to make a profit. Each day (6 days a week), 600 tons of of solid wastes come into the landfill. As we stood by the driveway, we watched a steady flow of trucks line up in the weigh area. The wastes are compacted to a quarter of the original volume and then added onto a nearby dump site. At the end of the day, six inches of soil is added over the dump site to prevent waste from blowing away, eliminate odors, and reduce flies and rats. When one phase of the landfill is full (at about 60 to 100 feet in depth), it is covered with plastic, clay, soil, and grass.

Where does all our garbage go? Solid wastes are dumped at the Dane County Landfill.

Where does all our garbage go? Solid wastes are dumped at the Dane County Landfill.

Started in 1985, the Dane County Landfill has grown to its current 76 acres, able to hold 7 million cubic yards of refuse. It will reach capacity by December of this year. Proposals are in progress to expand the current site to either another 27 acres within this public space or to purchase additional adjacent properties. Selecting and managing a site involves following DNR regulations to prevent public disturbance, contamination, and other safety precautions. Landfills take care to avoid groundwater contamination by layering the bottom of a dumping site with clay and plastic and testing groundwater on a regular basis. In addition, the bottom of the site has gravel and a drain for the 15,000 gallons of leachate (liquid wastes) released each day, which goes to a public sewage treatment facility at $.01 per gallon. Concern for neighbors is expressed through payments to pre-existing property owners within 1 mile of the site (between $2000 and 8000, depending on the distance). One of the many other regulations is that landfills need to be sited a minimum distance from airports, as they often attract birds which are hazardous to airplanes.

The volume of solid wastes is reduced with a 50-ton compactor truck.

The volume of solid wastes is reduced with a 50-ton compactor truck.

Landfills need to have a gas control system in place, as the breakdown of solid waste without oxygen releases such gases as methane and carbon dioxide. Large pipes placed around the landfill site suck out the gases to be burned for the production of electricity. Even after landfills are filled, the gases need continued monitoring. There are numerous former landfills in Madison such as by Monona Terrace, University Avenue, Elver Park, and Cross Country Road in Verona. If methane is exposed to open air, it can be explosive, so it’s good to be aware if you are near one of these sites. However, I am not aware of where to get a list of all the former landfill sites.

Although it would be wonderful to be able to recycle or compost all our wastes, landfills are currently a necessary part of our lives and will be around for a while. Our tour guide highlighted many ways that they are responsibly managing the solid wastes that they receive and encouraged us to reduce our wastes and recycle, which was very good to hear. Thank you to the Dane County Landfill for the tour.

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