With landfill costs still relatively cheap, Knox County is burying valuable resources forever.
By Joe Tarr
FEBRUARY 14, 2000: Every year, migrating seagulls spend a few weeks relaxing in a 60-acre patch of land in Anderson County, just over the Knox County line.
They swoop and circle, diving now and then to snatch up a morsel of food. They'll stay for weeks, until the weather breaks, feasting. On the ground, bulldozers crush the birds' food and cover it with dirt. But not to worry, it's in no short supply.
Starting at 5 a.m. every day, trucks begin lining up at the Chestnut Ridge landfill off of I-75 to hide what Knox Countians and others no longer want. By dusk each day, the trucks deposit 2,000 tons of garbage here; in a year, 500,000 to 600,000 tons. It's enough junk to fill one and a half Neyland Stadiums.
The thing is, a lot of it isn't garbage. Much of itpaper, glass, tin, yard trimmings, wood, steelcould be recycled or composted and put to better use.
In the landfill, it's gone forever. "There's a moral issue that we're throwing away valuable resources. If they end up in the landfill, we can't get at them anymore. We're robbing from future generations these resources," says Athena Lee Bradley, recycling coordinator for Knox County.
Ten years ago, the state gave all Tennessee counties until 1995 to reduce the waste they send to landfills by 25 percent. When the deadline arrived, Knox Countians were throwing even more away. Since then, the amount of trash buried in landfills has decreased slightly per person, and several programs are in the works to cut it down even further.
But so far, the state's mandate that counties reduce waste has been nothing more than a threat. While other states are being more progressive in dealing with the landfill crisis, Tennessee is more or less dumping as it always has.
And with landfill dumping such a cheap option in Tennessee, those concerned about our disposable society don't have much hope people will change their ways soon. It's simply too easy to throw everything into the garbage.
A few decades ago, Tennesseans got rid of their trash in a fairly simple way.
"Thirty years ago, every city had a landfill. Monday through Thursday, they'd haul trash to it. On Friday, they'd set it on fire to burn it down. On Monday, they'd start all over again. Nashville, had 10 or 11 landfills spread around the city," says Rob Owen, district manager for Waste Management Inc., which owns the Chestnut Ridge landfill.
The old approach, of course, had many bad consequences. For instance, water from the decomposing garbage would seep into the ground, contaminating water sources.
The Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to regulate dumps. It lessened their impact on the environment, but made them much more expensive to operate. Today, the bottom of landfills must be lined with four feet of clay, then with a thick, sealed plastic liner to trap water. On top of that goes a sheet of textile fabric. Then two feet of sand is placed at the very bottom. After that comes the garbage.
In addition, several pumps are located at the bottom of the dumps to siphon off leachatethe water that collects from the garbage, which would pollute ground water if it leaked out to storage tanks. The leachate is shipped to sewage-treatment plants regularly to be treated.
The methane gas created by the decomposing garbage also must be dealt with. Some landfills simply burn it. At Chestnut Ridge, it is used to generate electricityenough to power 4,500 homeswhich is sold to KUB. The landfill doesn't make any money off the methane (the generator cost $4 million to build) but can take advantage of tax credits for it.
Each new landfill costs $300,000 an acre to build, Owen says. (Waste Management builds the landfill, but that cost is eventually passed on to taxpayers.) Still, it's a profitable business. There's certainly no shortage of customers, and in Tennessee, efforts to reduce waste are slow at best.
With the tipping fee (the charge to dump at a landfill) currently at $28.75 a ton, Chestnut Ridge will gross somewhere in the neighborhood of $17 million a year. However, the landfill will have to be maintained for years after it's closed.
Trucks at Chestnut Ridgethe only major dump in the Knox County areadrive along a concrete road to be weighed, and then drive over the makeshift mud and gravel roads where they unload. The heaviest trucks are front loadersmarked by the giant scorpion-like prongs that stick out in front of their cabsthat empty out commercial Dumpsters and can carry up to 10 tons of trash.
Chestnut Ridgepart of Waste Management's network of more than 100 landfills around the countryplans 18 to 24 months in advance where it will be putting garbage. The company's long-range plan is to expand the landfill to an adjacent 100-acre site. If approved, Owen says the landfill could accommodate garbage for another 30 to 40 years (though others predict it has only about another 10 years of life).
So what's the problem?
Well, according to Bradley, just because East Tennesseans now have the space to dump garbage doesn't mean they should keep doing it. She points to the to the tons of aluminum, tin, paper, plastic, and petroleum products buried every year.
"For a sustainable future, we can't just keep throwing all these resources away. Resources aren't going to be there indefinitely," she says. "Recycling is being conservative. It's conserving resources. There's nothing more conservative than that. It's not wacko environmentalists out there trying to tax people."
In 1991, when it looked as though burying waste was going to suddenly become extremely expensive because of the new federal regulations, the Tennessee Legislature passed the Solid Waste Act of 1991.
"The '91 law was passed because of a perceived crisis in landfill space," says John Evans, the solid waste director for Knox County. "At the time, it didn't seem like people were siting any. It really forced Tennessee to take a more direct look at planning. It was really a mess 10 years ago. A lot of counties didn't even know how much garbage they generated."
The state mandated that county governments begin monitoring the waste its residents generate and develop a plan for how it is to be disposed. And it required every county to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills by a quarter.
In 1991, the 340,000 residents of Knox County buried 389,000 tons of garbage. This is an average of 1.16 tons (or 2,320 pounds) a person.
But rather than decrease, the amount actually climbed by 1995 to 1.233 tons (2,466 pounds) a person. The national rate is about .79 tons a person; the state is at about .98 tons per capita.
Of other Tennessee regions (some counties, especially in rural areas, joined forces to work on the goal), 38 have reported meeting the goal, 14 are making progress, and 13 are creating more waste.
But Bradley and others say there's a lot of controversy over the numbers. The formula calculating waste has been changed over the years.
"A lot of counties, I would question some of the numbers," Bradley says. "Where I live in Hawkins County, they say they've had 40 percent reduction in waste. I don't know how they came up with those numbers, because in Hawkins County there's virtually no recycling."
In many of the counties, the waste is simply going to a lower-class landfill, which can bury construction debris without needing tight regulation.
Since 1995, Knox County has managed to pull the reins in slightly on its disposable ways. In 1998 (1999 figures aren't available yet), the county sent 373,985 tons to the landfillor 1.02 tons a person. Still, that isn't even half of the 25 percent reduction rate required. Knox County (like all other counties that couldn't meet the '95 deadline) has been given an extension until 2003 to meet the reduction goal. Failure to meet the goal could mean a loss of funding and fines.
First- and second-graders at Mount Olive Elementary School's cafeteria walk single-file with their food trays to a 40-gallon bin where grownup Maggie Michael stands waiting. Some of the kids are old pros, and know to dump their beans, French fries, napkins, and fruit juice in the bin, and throw their half-eaten hamburgers and last sips of milk into the regular garbage. Others don't quite know the system yet and need a little help. An Americorps volunteer, Michael is there to help them understand what composting is all about.
The kids are taking part in a pilot programco-sponsored by Ijams Nature Centerthat officials hope will spread to all Knox County schools. After the kids fill up the 40-gallon bin, they dump it out behind the school in two larger brown bins, and mix the garbage with leaves.
After about four or five months, the food and leaves will have decomposed into a nutrient-rich dirt that will be spread on the children's gardens, Micheal says. "The younger students get to see it go full circle to when they use it in the garden and sunflowers come up," Micheal says. "The older students study the decomposition and measure the temperature of the compost."
Students at Austin-East High School compost using a quicker method, a giant bin filled with 20 pounds of worms that eat half their weight every day. The 16 schools that participate in the program so far have reduced their waste by an average 34.5 percentwhich helps save them money because they're sending less to the landfills.
Composting is just one way that people can reduce the amount of waste they produce. Evans says the county hopes to eventually get other large institutions like hospitals and businesses into some kind of food-composting program. But for now, the county is starting with a smaller mulching program.
Mulch is made by letting organic wastesuch as leaves, grass and other yard clippingsdecompose. The material can then be sold. The program will kick off this year, on 165 acres Knox owns in the northwest section of the county, Evans says. Forty acres will be used for mulching (though only a small part of that, at first) and the rest of the property will be a buffer of hiking trails and park area. There will also be a mulching done at the Forks of the River drop-off center, he says.
"We want to walk carefully into this process," Evans says. If all goes well, organic food waste, paper and some sewage sludge will be added to the mix to start a full-blown composting program in about five years, he adds.
Starting in February, the mulching program alone will help divert yard clippings out of the lndfills. In the first year, Evans expects about 10,000 tons will be mulched, or 2 to 3 percent of the waste stream. And it will save the county money.
A private companywho Evans wouldn't name because the contract has not been finalizedwill actually do the mulching. Knox County will pay some where between $10 to $15 a ton for the company to accept the waste, but it's half of what taxpayers would pay to ship it to a landfill, he says.
The city has been sending its yard waste to a mulcher for four years. Shamrock Organic Products on Ailor Avenue took in 27,000 tons of yard clippings from the city in 1998. At about $32 a ton, it's more expensive than it would be to landfill it, says Ed Umbach, solid waste manager for the city.
"We're paying a premium to have that downtown location," says Umbach, adding that the city saves on transportation costs. "If you look at the big picture, we're really not paying more. And besides, we're committed to diverting it for a much better use."
Each week, the Oak Ridge National Recycle Center gets about 90,000 pounds of computer and electronic equipment from businesses around the Southeast. Most of it is junk.
Started with a grant from the Department of Energy, the center sorts through the computers. About 8 percent of it can be resold as is or repaired and resold, says Rodney Dean, who is in charge of the company's operations.
The rest of the equipment is picked apart, with some of the parts salvaged and a lot more recycled in its various materials. About the only thing not recycled or reused is Styrofoam and clear plastic, he says. The company will pay for still-usable equipment but must charge companies to take those it can't sell.
"The reuse of any thing is the ultimate form of recycling. We try to salvage as much as possible for reuse and resale, until it's taken to the end of its life, where it's tear-down," says part-owner Ellen Jessop.
It's the kind of thing that Karen Anderson would like to see more of. As head of the Knoxville Recycling Coalition, Anderson just doesn't understand why so many valuable resources end up buried in a landfill.
"To me, throwing away something that's still good doesn't make sense. Whether we have the space or not, why throw away something we can still use?" she says. "You save energy. You take a rigid tree and turn it into something that's thin, bright white and you can tear itthat takes a lot of mechanical and chemical energy to do that.
"I mean, these shoes were made from garbage," she says, pointing at the brown leather chukka boots. "That's cool."
The recycling coalition runs several programs, including a waste exchange, where they take donations of anything that might be usableold desks or office suppliesand find someone who can use it. (They recently collected and redistributed 24,000 three-ring notebooks.)
They also collect paperat a feefrom businesses, which the group uses to finance its operations. The program saves the companies money because it's more expensive to dump it in a landfill, Anderson says.
Despite such savings, recycling advocates are often dismayed that many large businesses don't bother with recycling. Two large non-recycling businesses are West Town and Knoxville Center malls, which are owned by the same company. Although they've been approached by the county about setting aside extra bins, the malls have yet to do so. Deenie Deeringer, West Town's manager, says that although the mall is looking at adding special recycling bins, space is scarce. And he says that the mall's hauler, BFI, separates most of the recyclables out of the bin for them. (However, an employee at BFI's recycle center says BFI doesn't do thattheir facility isn't set up to do it.)
With a strong market for paper and cardboard, the malls could probably save moneyand might even make someby separating their cardboard and paper for recycling. However, smaller businesses are often at a disadvantage because they don't produce enough waste to make it worth recyclers' troubleand therefore must pay a premium to recycle.
Memphis and Chattanooga both have municipal curbside recycling programswhere residents can just put recyclables in a bin next to the rest of their garbage for pick-upbut not Knoxville. Erin Chernisky, who used to work for the city's recycling program, says Knoxvillians have never put much pressure on the city.
"Citizens never really asked for it, so I think the politicians said, 'If no one's screaming for it, why should we fork over the extra money?' The wheel wasn't being squeaky enough to get people paying attention to it," says Chernisky, who now works for Arlington County, Va., which has curbside recycling pick-up, as well as a mandate for businesses and multi-family residences to recycle.
But that local push may soon be gathering steam. Knoxville Recycling Coalition plans to lobby City Council this year to start a curbside recycling program, Anderson says.
For now, you have to go out of your way to recycle in Knoxville. The city had a pilot curbside collection program several years ago that served about 10,000 homes. "We were not getting many people to participate and the cost per ton was very high," says Umbach.
Evans says most in Tennessee simply resist the idea. "Here's where it gets difficult. There is a relative, if not outright, opposition for any laws mandating recycling in Tennessee. It's a pretty independent state and people don't like to be told what to do," he says.
But other communities in East Tennessee have found that people are willing to recycle, if they're explained the process. The city of Morristownwith 23,000 residentshas had curbside recycling for about seven years. The city has been able to keep about 2 to 3 percent of its waste out of landfills as a result.
"People in this area here are pretty receptive. I'd call Morristown a pretty good American town. This is a costly thing, where we're paying more to recycle than to dump in a landfill," says Doug Deering, supervisor of the recycling program. "But it's still probably a money-maker in the end. In the future, buying space for landfill space is going to be unreal. We're doing what we can to keep it out of there."
Many people believe the only way to really reduce waste and get people to recycle is through a so-called pay-as-you-throw system for collecting trash.
Pay-as-you-throw can be instituted in various ways, but the basic premise is that people should be charged for garbage service according to how much they dump. In most communities, garbage service is subsidized by all taxpayers.
"Residents need to start thinking about trash disposal like electricity or water usage, because it's basically landfill usage," Bradley says. "Right now, if I dump one small 13-gallon container of waste a week, I'm paying the same amount as someone who dumps two 90-gallon containers a week. That's not equal taxation under the law. That makes no sense to me. I don't pay for somebody else's water or electric usage."
Pay-as-you-throw systems are the best way to get people to recycling and composting, as they get a tangible reduction to their garbage bills, proponents say. "It uses market forces in a constructive way to provide incentive for people to produce less waste. That's to everyone's benefit," says John Nolt, a UT philosophy professor who wrote What Have We Done?, a book detailing the region's environmental problems.
Some fear these systems also create an incentive for illegal dumping or burning. Proponents say this can be controlled by educating the public and strict enforcement, along with special programs to help small businesses and poor and/or large families.
The fact is, people are already paying for garbage disposalthey're just not as aware of it. The city's solid waste budget is $8 million. The county spends $1.8 million a year on the convenience centers, although these get relatively low use, with most residents outside the city paying a private hauler to pick up their trash. Still, most people think of garbage pick-up as free. "Politically [pay-as-you-throw] is a real tough sell," says Evans. "Because you've got people who think they don't pay for garbage. But garbage is not free.
"Everybody thinks it's free and then all of sudden they have to pay for it and they don't like it," he adds.
Bradley says that pay-as-you-throw systems enabled Seattle and Minneapolis to cut their waste streams by 60 percent. William Park, a UT agricultural economics professor, says that typically communities can cut their waste stream by about 20 to 30 percent.
Though it's been successful around the countryincluding some rural areaslocal advocates don't hold out much hope Knoxville will start one soon. "Obviously, changes like this are more palatable if they appear to be an answer to some crisis or problem," Park says. "Short of that, there's just kind of a of sense it ain't really broke."
The county now has until 2003 to meet the state's 25 percent reduction deadline. There are penalties if it fails. First comes a warning letter. Then withholding grants, which in Knox County's case could amount to about $300,000 a year. After that, the county could be fined $5,000 a day for failing to comply.
But the state hasn't proven to be hard-nosed on this issue. It's extended the deadline for compliance already. And, unlike other states, Tennessee has done little with this issue since passing the original law in 1991. For instance, Georgia has banned all yard waste from landfills; Arkansas is mandating all communities tie the cost of garbage disposal to usage in some way.
But when it comes to trash disposal in Tennessee, it's more or less business as usual, as trucks continue lining up at Chestnut Ridge to dump their waste.
"There's no perceived emergency. But eventually we're going to experience the same sort of crunch for landfill space as in the Northeast. It's just a matter of time," Nolt says. "As with so many of the environmental problems, if we had just thought about it 20 years ago, we could have prevented many of the problems we're experiencing now. If we could just get ahead of the curve, we'd save ourselves a lot of trouble later."
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