Sorted, transported and covered: Transforming trash as it travels to its forever home
Think of the last thing you threw away on Kent State’s campus. Maybe it was a scrap of paper. Maybe it was the remnants of a Prentice wrap. Maybe it was an empty Starbucks cup (OK, it was probably an empty Starbucks cup.) During Recyclemania in 2018, Kent State’s campus generated more than one million pounds of trash and recycling, which averages out to 31.4 total pounds of trash per person.
Have you ever thought about what happens to your 31.4?
1) Trash on campus
First it ends up in the proper receptacle. Whether that be a trash can on campus or inside a building, all the trash ends up in one of the dumpsters around campus. While dumpsters aren’t the most glamorous thing in the world, Kent State’s facilities planning office is working to make the dumpster a form of cutting-edge technology. In the fall of 2017, the office had sensors installed on all the dumpsters, which helped the university not only figure out when a dumpster was emptied, but how full it was.
“I like having that data for the measurement of the trash and the recycling and how can we increase recycling trash,” said Melanie Knowles, the manager of sustainability. “The other practical application of that is, are we getting our dumpsters emptied at the right time?”
“We’ve been able to save some money by saying this dumpster could be emptied twice a week instead of three times a week or this location could use a smaller dumpster, which is less expensive.”
Once trash is in the receptacle, it’s then divided based on type. If it’s trash, it’s taken by Republic Services. If it’s a recyclable, it goes to Portage County Recycling. And if it’s paper, it’s taken by River Valley Cardboard.
Dumpsters are emptied on different schedules. Some buildings are emptied six days a week, while some are only emptied once a week.
2) Getting trash to the landfill
Once trash is picked up by Republic, it’s taken to one of two landfills Kent State works with, with most trash going to the Countywide Recycling and Disposal Facility in East Sparta, Ohio. Countywide, which opened in 1991, takes in 2,000 tons of trash a day from 26 counties in Ohio.
“I’m going to say 90% of it comes from Stark, Summit and Tuscarawas Counties,” said Tim Vandersall, the operations manager at Countywide. “There’s a lot of landfills in Ohio and it doesn’t make sense for trucks to drive hundreds of miles to get to a landfill and pass up five other landfills.”
All trucks at Countywide go through the same routine. They first weigh in on the truck scales before telling an attendant what trash they’re hauling.
Drivers hauling normal trash head to the top of the landfill, while those hauling special waste have to go through a different routine.
“Special waste is basically anything other than normal household waste,” Vandersall said. “Stuff from an industry or some commercial facilities.
Countywide stretches across 258 acres, with 175 of them already filled with trash. Those 258 acres are divided into 20 different cells for controlled dumping.
“Cells are generally built a year or two in advance, so we build them as we need them,” Vandersall said. “We change cells annually or biannually.”
3) The life of trash at the landfill
Countywide’s peak sits 1,250 feet above sea level and requires a drive up a long, winding hill to reach. About halfway up, the ground turns into a substance of half trash, half dirt. The sides of the landfill are draped in protective netting to prevent trash like plastic bags from blowing away. Republic employs three full-time employees and a staff of part-timers to pick up moved trash.
Trucks dump their trash at the top of the landfill. Countywide has $8 million worth of construction equipment at the top of the landfill that compresses, crushes and moves trash around to make sure every part of the cell is full before Countywide employees begin putting trash in a different cell. Dirt is hauled up the top of the landfill daily to serve as a layer between trash dumps.
Countywide is a 100% lined landfill, which means it’s built on a three-foot-deep liner system consisting of recompacted clay, bentonite and plastic to prevent trash from seeping into the ground. This, coupled with a layer of gravel and piping above it, serves as the “leachate collection system.” When trash pieces pile up, they form a liquid called leachate that can seep into the ground and poison surrounding earth.
“As the hundreds of feet of garbage above that decomposes the liquid down to the bottom, it ends up in that gravel pack,” Vandersall said. “Once it gets to the low point, we have pumps that constantly pump it off into our storage tanks.”
With China enacting it’s new National Sword policy, it has stopped taking North America’s trash and recycling. In 2016, the U.S. exported 16 millions tons of waste to China. In addition, China processed half the world’s exports of plastic, paper and metals. Now all that waste is stuck in the U.S. with nowhere to go.
4) The future of trash
America generated 262.4 million tons of trash in 2015, according to the EPA.
Knowles said trash can sensors are a step in the right direction for the Office of Sustainability.
“It’s valuable to be able to know that what you’re doing is effective and where we need to focus our efforts,” she said. “It’s valuable to know what the composition of our recycling and waste stream are.”
And while Countywide might be a landfill covered in dirt and trash now, that’s not what it’ll look like forever. The life of the facility is 100 years, meaning once it’s full of trash, a mixture of clay and soil will be placed on top of the trash on it for grass to grow. While its uneven size means buildings can’t be put on it, it can still be turned into hiking trails or a park.
Regardless of what the world looks like when Countywide closes its gates as a landfill, Vandersall thinks society will have moved past the traditional landfill.
“Technology is changing so rapidly, and we’re getting smarter and smarter,” he said. “I think we’ll be doing something better with our trash in a hundred years.”
Henry Palattella is the sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.