GARBAGE MOVES QUICKLY through a landfill, but changes in the landfill business move at a much slower pace. With waste generation steady and recycling rates leveling off, the most successful landfill operations remain relatively impervious to economic fluctuations, new regulations and other factors.
Recently, Waste Age polled some of the nation's public and private landfill executives about the issues facing the industry. Although their answers varied, they agreed that landfills continue to provide a crucial service. Quite simply, landfills are an asset to the community.
This year's roundtable participants include:
Jim Gregory, vice president and co-owner of Austin-based Texas Disposal Systems;
N.C. Vasuki, CEO of the Delaware Solid Waste Authority based in Dover;
Edward Vogel, vice president of Vogel Disposal Services, Mars, Pa.; and
James D. Warner, executive director of the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority, Lancaster, Pa.;
Waste Age: What's driving the landfill business?
Gregory: In central Texas, the main factor is the need for landfill capacity. As communities grow, they are constantly looking for airspace. We have a lot of folks who are coming to us. Being a private company, we're certainly out to make a buck as well, so economics has a lot to do with it.
Vasuki: People [in Delaware] have money, they are buying a lot of stuff and they are discarding a lot of material. The economy in Delaware is doing quite well, and whatever we do falls under the Department of Natural Resources' regulations.
Vogel: What's driving my business? The need to dump my own garbage. What causes the most headaches? Regulations. Pennsylvania probably [faces] some of the toughest ones, including additional fees that the state has put on landfills. I've got to compete with landfills on the Ohio border. Pennsylvania requires double-lined landfills, but Ohio requires just Subtitle D, so our costs are already higher.
Warner: Regulations and the expense that goes along with them, from increased host fees, are driving factors. Here in Pennsylvania, we have additional landfill fees, which are really taxes, to fund constant construction and capping activities. It's always something. We've recently had to incorporate radiation monitoring for all landfills, waste-to-energy facilities and transfer stations. I'd say it's a combination of issues that challenge our landfill operations.
WA: Are Subtitle D regulations still a concern?
Gregory: I remember that when Subtitle D came into effect, we didn't have a major concern about it. Our issue was that we all play on the same playing field. The regulations are out of the ordinary — [we want] to be safe, conscientious and reliable people, and we are concerned about our environment. I don't have any problem with Subtitle D regulations.
Vasuki: Subtitle D was really a good step for the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). It really improved landfill standards around the country, and it made everyone come up to a common standard. Many of us have recommended that the EPA look at the issues again, regarding leachate recirculation and bioreactors. The EPA should give better guidance to the states on doing leachate circulation.
The other big issue with Subtitle D is that the EPA should be looking at [providing] better guidance to the states on the closure and post-closure issue, so we should be able to take a good hard look at that guidance. The third item is related to Clean Air Act [compliance]. I think those permits are really complicated and need to be simplified.
Vogel: Pennsylvania changed its regulations in 1988, so when Subtitle D came into effect, it didn't really affect us. We were already stringent. There may have been minor changes, but although Pennsylvania didn't require it, we installed a layer of bentonite at the landfill.
Warner: Subtitle D regulations are a concern, but not in a negative sense. It's a concern in that you have to make sure that your landfills operate according to those standards, and those standards have become the industry norm. If you don't do it that way, you're not going to be in business. That's no surprise.
WA: How are state or local regulations, such as bans, affecting your business?
Gregory: We don't have any [yard waste bans] here in central Texas as of yet. We do composting here at our facility and already separate yard waste and brush, and we'd love to see it legislated.
Vasuki: Landfill bans are bad public policy. How do you enforce them? They are difficult to enforce, and what is the point of banning something from going into a landfill unless you have some alternative disposal means. People forget that eventually everything comes back to the landfill. California had a yard waste ban and then said that you could shred the yard waste and use it for daily cover. So they just reduce the particle size and put it on the landfill. Anytime the government bans something, you have problems.
Vogel: They make it cumbersome, but they are workable. I understand why [they exist], but some of them need to be rethought. There's no sense in banning leaf waste. It's not going to hurt anything. Tires, as long as they're handled properly, are not an issue. Car batteries are recyclable. Yard waste is not banned [in Pennsylvania] at this point, but it would be very silly to do so. Landfills are an underused energy source. Why do you want to ban stuff that will make it easier for methane [to be produced and burned for energy]? Every time you ban something, you have to haul it someplace else. It means additional costs, transportation and smoke going into the air.
WA: How is the economy affecting your business?
Warner: It really isn't. The severity of impacts goes with the diversity of markets. Our market, which is predominantly Lancaster County, has a very diversified economy; we've seen our flows stay relatively steady. There are a couple [of waste] generators that have gone out of business, and that definitely hurts volumes. Overall, we've pretty much held our own at the landfill.
Gregory: The economy has slowed the volume down some because the construction industry has slowed down. Municipal waste hasn't slowed up at all because we still generate trash at home. We take in about 3,000 tons per day, which is a lot of trash, but we keep small working faces. We are in the waste business, and it's a dirty, nasty business, but you don't have to make it that way. You can run a clean facility, and you can require people to do a better job. If you run a good environmental site, the profits will come.
Vasuki: Delaware has done a little better than the national average. Commercial waste has decreased a little bit but not a lot. The economy has not affected Delaware as much as other locations. We have a more stable mix of businesses, and a lot of service businesses such as banking. For many years, we were dependent on [industries such as] automobiles and chemicals. Now we're more diverse, so the economy doesn't affect us as much.
Vogel: It's definitely made it difficult to collect money. Things are tighter without a doubt. You can get the trash, but it's a different story about whether you get the money you're charging. The economy affects all businesses, and when money gets tight, or sometimes nonexistent, it's difficult to collect. The last bill to get paid is the garbage bill.
WA: How has recycling affected your business?
Gregory: We do a lot of recycling in the city of Austin, which has won lots of awards for its recycling. Austin is regularly noted as the cleanest city in America. We were into recycling before recycling was cool, but I don't know that it's affecting our landfill. It, of course, takes some volume away, but I would gladly give up that volume to see those materials being recycled. Will we ever see the day when all waste will be recycled? Absolutely not. There's too much material out there that can never be recycled.
Warner: Our recycling has peaked at about 34 or 35 percent, and it's just maintaining itself there, which in today's environment is pretty good. It doesn't have an impact on landfill operations.
Vasuki: Delaware has pursued a pragmatic recycling policy that, out of whatever we separate, 95 percent is going into the marketplace. We don't have inflated numbers.
Vogel: Recycling hasn't hurt our landfill business. We are a private hauler and we process recyclables, too. If we didn't operate a recycling center, all the materials would go to the landfill, which would increase volumes. But recycling is a viable business for us, and we promote recycling. It's the right way to go. It's not always feasible for everyone to do it, but it works for us.
WA: Have flow control issues affected your operations?
Gregory: It hasn't affected us at all. There is not a lot of flow control at all in this part of the country. Here, our major cities are 250 or 300 miles apart.
Vasuki: It hasn't affected us because we have come up with a contracting system with BFI (owned by Allied Waste Industries) and Waste Management. I don't see [interstate and flow control] as being a problem.
Vogel: I had big problems with someone telling me where to take my trash, and we fought some of those cases. That has been a learning curve for the past 12 or 15 years.
Warner: It really doesn't affect operations that much. We enter into contracts with local haulers for the delivery of waste at a price point and length of term that they agree to. In that regard, we're shielded from any other influences. As long as the mega-landfills continue to sustain their daily input, that more or less helps us when capacity is tight.
WA: How do you get the most value for your airspace?
Gregory: I think of the airspace as a commodity; that we are able to bring in waste and fill up that airspace. It's an asset to the community.
Vasuki: We've held the price constant for 11 years, and it will be held at the same price for one more year, which means that we have to be constantly looking at ways of improving our performance and bottom line … and in the way we landfill. Two of our southern landfills are designed as bioreactors, so we'll continue to have airspace gain over the years. We look at least 10 years ahead.
Vogel: Our airspace is a commodity. We run compactors to get as much waste in per cubic yard as we can. Naturally, I think everyone else doesn't charge enough, but 98 percent of the material coming to our site is ours. Outside customers are minimal.
Warner: Being a publicly owned landfill, we don't look at it as a commodity. We look at it as an asset. That airspace is an asset for the environmental management of waste created by the community. We're not necessarily looking for the greatest return price-wise.
WA: Do you think bioreactor technology is beneficial?
Warner: The industry as a whole should continue to aggressively pursue the science of bioreactors and access what we believe to be the tremendous benefits going forward. Time will tell, but I think in another 10 years, you'll see bioreactor landfills as the standard.
Vasuki: Subtitle D allows leachate recirculation under specific conditions, so as long as you have a composite liner, Subtitle D doesn't prevent you from doing [bioreactor operations]. Leachate recirculation saves you money, and it also provides landfill airspace gain. In any landfill operation, you want to minimize leachate generation and treatment costs. When you can do that through recirculation, you've achieved both those goals.
Vogel: We're not operating our site as [a bioreactor] as of yet. We do allow leachate recirculation. [Bioreactors and sites with leachate recirculation] need additional management, but I think in the future there will definitely be a place for them. If sites are built and managed right, this should increase capacity and produce additional energy in the long term. There's a lot to learn [about bioreactors], as far as proper practices and the best ways of doing it, which will take a little bit of time. But it will come.
WA: What advice would you give to landfill managers?
Gregory: Learn to be a positive part of your community. I'm so sad to see that you can go into communities and landfill operators are the enemy. We are providing a very essential service. If the landfills in Austin were closed today, by tomorrow, it would be on every television station in the United States. We would do a major service as owners and operators if we did a better job marketing ourselves to the community.
We have a public relations department that schedules tours here. We live that saying about being a good neighbor. There are homes across the street from our landfill … and you won't find one neighbor who's complaining about us. We've got a $2.5 million party facility on the landfill. We don't rent it out; we provide it … as way to give back to the community. That's where the profit comes from. Do a better job of marketing yourself, and clean up your act.
Warner: Everybody should strike that balance between regulatory compliance, environmental stewardship and improving the bottom line … and look for the best equipment.
Vasuki: Make good measurements, because you can control what you measure. If you want to gain airspace, make appropriate measurements, [which helps to determine] how you are maintaining your slopes, and it reduces your leachate production. I'm a firm believer that good measurements will give you good data to manage your systems well.
Vogel: You don't want to cause a big stink. You want to run a clean site. You want to comply with regulations. It's easier to comply with regulations than to find a way around them. Gain the trust of your neighbors and do a little extra for the community. Education is a big piece of it. If anybody asks questions or asks for a tour, we try to do that. Education is half the battle.
Kim A. O'Connell is a Waste Age contributing editor.
DELAWARE SWA AT-A-GLANCE
Service Area: Entire state of Delaware.
Sources of Waste: 941,253 tons of MSW; 74,458 tons of C&D: 74.7 percent is from private haulers; 10.3 percent from municipalities; 0.1 percent self-hauled; 14.9 percent from mom-and-pop small load operations.
Landfill Capacity: Cherry Island Landfill: 9 million tons and 4 years remaining; Sandtown Landfill : 13 years and 1.7 million tons remaining; and Jones Crossroads Landfill: 12.2 years remaining. Fiscal year 2002 tonnages were 569,000 tons at Cherry Island, 111,112 tons at Sandtown and 204,470 at Jones Crossroads.
Local Tipping Fees: $58.50 per ton.
Equipment: 3 Caterpillar 826 G compactors; 2 Cat D6 dozers; Cat D4 dozer; 2 Cat 12H motor grader; Cat 426C backhoe; Cat 963B track loader; 2,000 gallon water truck; 2 tractor/mowers; 10-wheel dump truck; Tarp-O-Matic tarping machine with 16, 40'×50' tarps; 2 Bomag 672RB compactors; Case 580 4-wheel drive backhoe; 2 Cat 950 rubber tire loaders; 2 40-hp tractors; Al-Jon 91K compactor; Cat 836 G compactor; Cat D6H dozer; Cat 950 wheel loader; and Cat 325 B excavator.
No. of Employees: 61 for DSWA and three landfills.
LANCASTER, PA. SWMA AT-A-GLANCE
Service Area: Lancaster County, Pa.
Sources of Waste: All from Lancaster County: 20 percent is from private haulers, or company-generated direct delivery; 30 percent is LCSWMA incinerated ash delivery.
Landfill Capacity: 1,100 tons per day. Remaining capacity is 17 years or 5.5 million cubic yards.
Local Tipping Fees: Free from LCSWMA landfill. Averages $44 for C&D waste; $68 for refuse; and $44 for industrial waste.
Equipment: Caterpillar (Cat) 826 C and 826 G compactors; 2 Cat D8R dozers; 1 Cat 963 track loader; 1 928G Cat rubber tired loader; 1 Cat 345 excavator; 1 John Deere SSOLPG track dozer; 1 Cat D350D articulated dump truck; 1 Cat 627E scraper; 1 dirt screen with stacking conveyor; 1 John Deere tractor with mower; and Tarp-O-Matic cover.
No. of Employees: 13
Service Area: 9-county area in western Pennsylvania
Landfill Capacity: 1,500 to 1,600 tons per day.
Local Tipping Fees: $65 per ton gate rate.
No. of Employees: 12
TEXAS DISPOSAL AT-A-GLANCE
Service Area: 100-mile radius around Austin, Texas
Sources of Waste: 50 percent from private haulers, 50 percent from commercial and city sources.
Landfill Capacity: 2,500 to 3,000 tons per day.
Local Tipping Fees: $6.50 per cubic yard for uncompacted material and $6.75 for compacted material.
Equipment: 2 Caterpillar (Cat) 836 compactors, 1 Cat 826 compactor, 1 Cat 963 track loader, 1 Cat D8N bulldozer, 1 Cat 140G motor grader, 1 Columbia transfer trailer tipper, 1 Mack water truck and 1 FMP sweeper.
No. of Employees: 15