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County struggles as landfill overflows

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

'Set it on the curb and forget about it - but the issue doesn't go away'

Sir Isaac Newton's third law of motion states that "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

Sitting in the middle of the Buena Vista County Harold Rowley Recycling Center one is confronted by the sights, sounds and smells of the county's 'equal and opposite reaction' to consumption - the consequences of what the recycling center and landfill's general manager, Ellsworth Jeppesen, calls "a throw-away society."

Regardless of what you think when Sunshine comes and takes your bags of garbage away, those bags don't disappear. In fact, by their very existence, they are costing the county a minimum of $1.4 million a year. That's the budget for the recycling center and landfill southeast of Storm Lake. And as the landfill fills, clouds lurk on its horizon as the county tries to find another a replacement for the 30-year-old dump. A new place to put our boxes, garbage, cans, bottles, car fenders and old cell phones we just can't live without, but can just toss out without a thought.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has mandated that the state's landfills recycle 25 percent of the what comes into the solid waste disposal. Good idea, but the decision was made a long time age, Jeppesen said, and it has made for some tough going at landfills around Iowa. That's 25 percent of what was coming into the county dump in 1988.

"Those standards were made 13 or 14 years after the landfill was opened out here," he said. "Why that date was chosen, I don't know, but it was and we have to live with it. Trouble is, we have had increases in population and increases in volume and types of waste in the stream."

What happens if the county doesn't make the 25 percent mark? It gets a slight drubbing by the DNR, not much, but it's enough of an incentive to try and get those numbers up.

"We have to pay the DNR so much a ton that comes in," Jeppesen said. "We were paying $3.65 prior to 2001 and now it's up to $4.75. But The DNR lets us keep $1.45 for public education. We could keep more if we make higher recycling numbers."

The county charges $37 per ton dumped at the site. Whether it's yard waste or garbage.

And it makes a good effort to sell as much as it can to recyclers. Stuff like No. 1 and No. 2 plastic. That's milk jugs, water jugs, soap bottles, containers with the little 1 or 2 on the bottom.

Jeppesen said that helps keep the landfill from getting full. And he's big supporter of container refunds, would like to see the price go up and more things like juice containers have a refund price.

"Set it on the curb and forget about it," Jeppesen said. "But it doesn't go away. It's causing problems for county taxpayers. People have to understand it doesn't go away. And it's going to be a bigger problem in the future."

County supervisor Lorna Burnside is on the solid waste board and gives Jeppesen high marks for the job he's doing to keep BV's waste from overwhelming the county.

"It's tough out there, I mean the job," she said. "People just don't want face the realities of their garbage or waste. It's something that is costing the taxpayers money and I think he's doing a good job keeping that from getting out of hand."

Burnside said she used to go around the county meeting with groups, carrying a bag of her garbage to demonstrate how to separate recyclables.

"I used to tell them that the problem didn't go away just because the bag was gone," she said. "I don't know if it worked or not, but curbside separating eventually stopped because no one was doing it."

Driving out to the landfill on Highway 7, one begins to see some of the magnitude of the county's waste problem. On what was once flat ground is now a small mountain rising up out of the landscape.

Although every year it looks like the landfill threatens to close, the DNR has continued to breathe new life into the landfill. The DNR has let the county put in another lift, its second, on the landfill, but that's all that will be allowed, Jeppesen said. A lift is basically a layer of garbage cover with dirt.

"We're hoping to get four to five more years out of our present site," Jeppesen said. "But it's hard to say what will happen. Populations change and the waste stream changes so you never know what will happen. And we've started hauling some commercial waste to the Cherokee County landfill."

What has happened is demolition of older buildings, new construction, fewer farmers are burning, population has increased and new, more toxic forms of waste are beginning to show up.

Jeppesen said that new plastic composite materials are being sent to the landfill with no hope of finding anyone to recycle them.

"Look at your car these days," he said. "Once upon a time it was all steel or aluminum. Now-a-days most cars have plastic fenders and bumpers. When there's a 'fender-bender' where does that part go? Right out here."

Giving an update on the landfill to the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors recently, Jeppesen said the 'e-waste' is becoming a problem that will only continue to grow as the nation becomes even more dependent on computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.

"We have a tough time getting rid of those things," he told the board. "They contain lead and glass that we can't put in the landfill and don't really have any place to put them."

Jeppesen said China has started reclaiming heavy metals and other recyclables from e-waste but for BV County that doesn't look very promising at the present.

Jeppesen also said that while e-waste is a growing problem, demolition and construction waste is the greatest threat to the landfill at the present time for a variety of reasons.

"Farmers used to burn things like old buildings and lumber but the DNR has been discouraging burning," Jeppesen said. "That has sent a lot of big stuff to us."

Jeppesen said the DNR is after a way to recycle wood but it is costing more time and money right now to keep it out of the landfill.

He said the state has some plans, although the funding isn't in place yet, to do a study of separating construction and demolition materials so they can be further recycled. And there are some contractors that will go into older houses that are on the block and take out the wood in the structure.

Burnside said that finding a new site for the landfill would be tough.

"Nobody wants it in their backyard so we've got that against us," she said. "And, at $3,200 an acre who can afford to sell the land to dump garbage on it?"

And closing the landfill is no cheap matter either, Jeppesen told the board.

"It will cost around $1.4 million for closure and post-closure, the same amount as our yearly budget," he said. "The landfill will have to be buried and then tested for leakage.

This is no small matter, either in space, time or money."

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