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September 1, 2004

9 Min Read

Charlotte Woolard

WASTE MANAGEMENT IN THE Phoenix area is undergoing radical change. But unlike a surgeon cutting away, the communities in Maricopa County, Ariz., are adding new features to handle their burgeoning waste. Cities like Phoenix, Chandler and Gilbert already have plans that include new disposal sites, transfer stations and collection routes. At the center of one of the largest population booms in the country, the communities have no choice.

Maricopa County, located on 9,266 square miles of desert, is now home to 3.4 million people — more than double its population in 1980. Phoenix's population grew to about 1.4 million in 2003 and has continued to increase at a rate far above the national average, leaving the city to handle more waste than it ever has before. And growth is extending into the surrounding communities, making Maricopa County second only to Los Angeles County, Calif., in the number of new residents added between 2000 and 2003, according to the U.S. Census.

Carolyn Bristo, Phoenix public works assistant director, says the rapid growth makes managing customer service, cost, equipment and personnel a challenge. “We have to be very strategic,” she says. “We have to plan ahead, and we have to provide the best customer service.”

Here's a look at how some communities in Maricopa County are staying on top of the rising waste pile.

Phoenix Rising

Phoenix's population jumped more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2003, making it the sixth largest city in the nation, according to the U.S. Census. Its city-operated Skunk Creek Landfill took in 548,965 million tons of contained waste last year, a 6 percent increase over the 2000 haul, according to the city.

The 32-year-old Skunk Creek facility is scheduled to close in December 2005 and will be replaced by a new landfill slated for construction about 60 miles away in Buckeye, Ariz. Additionally, the city has begun to construct a new transfer station on its north side.

“These two projects are going to set the infrastructure of Phoenix for the next 50 years,” says Mark Leonard, Phoenix public works director. “Both of these need to open in January 2006.”

The new facilities, estimated to cost the city $76 million, will require extensive planning and cost consideration.

The Buckeye landfill, also called SR 85 Landfill, will be constructed on approximately 2,652 acres located about 60 miles away from the existing transfer station — a fact that creates a logistical challenge. An estimated 100 to 150 trailers of waste will need to be transported to the landfill from the transfer stations every day. This doesn't include commercial waste, which will continue to be handled by private contractors.

The city is researching the most cost-effective way to long haul its residential waste from the transfer stations to the site — including getting into the long-hauling business itself. “Competition always helps keep cost down,” Bristo says of the city's philosophy.

Managed competition has kept Phoenix's monthly residential rates at $22.70 per household. Administrators divide the city's 345,000 residential customers into six service areas, and then call for bids on each area. The waste division of the Public Works Department competes against commercial operators for area contracts.

The contracts require bi-weekly collection of waste to reduce health concerns and inhibit vectors that thrive in the hot environment. Contractors schedule garbage and recyclables collection on different days, helping to keep the city's recyclables clean.

Currently, the city serves three of the six areas, or about 172,500 residences. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Allied Waste Industries Inc. serves two areas with about 115,000 residences. Houston-based Waste Management Inc. serves one area with about 57,500 residences.

Bristo admits that the city can't keep residents' costs down forever. “With rapid growth and change, rates will have to increase,” she says.

Cutting Down on Waste

Recycling rates also need to increase, Phoenix officials say, noting that a change will allow Phoenix to extend the life of the new landfill as well as to reduce the number of trailers driven to the landfill each day.

The city operates one mini-transfer station, where residents can drop off recyclables, and one transfer station that includes a materials recovery facility (MRF). Other recycling services, including a yard-waste mulching facility, are available at the Skunk Creek Landfill.

All told, the facilities help the city to divert 20 percent of residents' waste. The city does not have an official diversion goal, but Leonard says the figure falls short of the 40 percent rate he would like the city to achieve.

“We have some work to do, and we admit to that,” Leonard says, adding that 90 percent of residents already participate in the recycling program. “Yard waste is really where we're going to focus our attention,” he says.

Recent waste characterization studies showed that green waste makes up one-third of the residential waste produced by the desert community, which enjoys two growing seasons. This fact led Phoenix to begin diverting yard waste and processing it into alternative landfill cover in 2000. The move has saved an estimated 35,941 cubic yards of landfill space each year, according to a city estimate.

However, the process will change with the new landfill. Faced with the impracticality of long-hauling mulched yard waste, the city plans to use soil and tarps for daily landfill cover. To offset any impact on the diversion rate, the city will design and implement a new residential green waste pilot program in 2005, according to Christine Holloway, Phoenix solid waste administrator.

Mulching may be available at the new transfer station, called North Gateway Transfer Station/Recycling Facility, Leonard says. The facility will occupy about 30 acres and include a MRF.

Desert Camouflage

The North Gateway facility will feature long lines and subtle beige walls. “The old one was designed to attract the eye,” Mark Leonard says of the 27th Avenue waste management facility to the south. “You can see it for miles. The new one is designed to blend into the desert environment.”

In neighboring Chandler, aesthetic concerns also helped to determine the look of new waste management facilities. The Chandler Landfill and Transfer Station will close by October 2005 and be replaced by a $4.5 million residential self-haul transfer station that will include recycling and household hazardous waste (HHW) drop-off facilities.

The city council tabled a plan to construct a $8.5 million transfer station on the site of the existing landfill. The plan would have accounted for all of the city's residential garbage, but angered residents living near the facility.

Instead, the approved station will accommodate 20 to 25 percent of the city's residential waste. The remainder will be hauled to a commercial landfill.

Chandler's landfill currently takes in 450 tons of waste a day and diverts less than 20 percent of that weight, according to Bob Reichard, the city's solid waste services superintendent.

Due to a successful waste compaction contract with Allied and through the city's recycling initiative, the life of the landfill has surpassed estimates by eight years. Now, Chandler will contract with a private company for its waste disposal.

A Fleet of One's Own

Chandler's population grew from 29,673 in 1980 to approximately 208,450 in 2003, but the boom had little effect on the day-to-day operations of the Solid Waste Services Department.

Bob Reichard, Chandler Solid Waste Services superintendent says, “We've been able to maintain [services] without any growth [in staff].” However, he adds, “the budget has grown.”

This is because Chandler, with an $11 million budget and 58,000 residential customers, already contracts its hauling and recycling services out to private companies.

Maricopa County has issued permits to 89 refuse haulers who operate 1,383 trucks, a number that has grown 38 percent in five years. Of those trucks, only 509 belong to municipalities.

Communities, such as neighboring Gilbert, which have waste hauling operations, have had to expand more than the budget to accommodate double-digit growth rates.

“The [communities] who are hauling trash are dedicated to doing it,” says Louis Andersen, Gilbert's solid waste supervisor.

Gilbert grew 32 percent between 2000 and 2003, making the town the fastest growing large city in the country. With 145,250 residents and 40 percent of the town's commercial business, the Public Works Department collected 85,779 tons of municipal solid waste last year, up 50 percent from 57,058 tons five years earlier. Town officials say they don't expect that growth to level off for another 12 to 13 years.

The town adds a new collection route every three months, Andersen says. The collection fleet consists of six rear-loading trucks, 20 side loaders and five front loaders. Trucks collect the town's waste and transport it directly to the Salt River Landfill, with whom the city has a disposal contract.

Andersen says his department will add three new trucks and a tractor but has avoided full expansion of the fleet by lengthening what was once a four-day collection schedule. “Instead of going to the five days, we decided to go straight to the six days,” he says.

Gilbert's commercial and residential waste budget grew to $11.8 million, up 55 percent from $7.6 million five years earlier. But residents have not seen their $14.05 monthly bill increase during that time. “Our revenue has dramatically increased as well,” Andersen says.

High Stakes

Officials in Gilbert say continuing to provide good service in the face of rapidly growing demand is their biggest challenge. “We hold customer service very high,” Andersen says. “When we mess up, it affects people in a different way.”

Also, competition in the county fuels good service. Phoenix, for example, conducts quarterly customer satisfaction surveys, and Mark Leonard says those results consistently show that the department he heads is doing its job.

“We have good, solid facilities,” he says, “and we're building more.”

Charlotte Woolard is a Waste Age contributor based in Evanston, Ill.


The American-Indian Maricopa tribe shares land with the Pima tribe along the Maricopa County, Ariz., border, where President Rutherford B. Hayes established the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in 1879.

The Community Council, comprised of both tribes, oversees several enterprises, including two casinos, a golf course and the 200-acre Salt River Landfill that serves private haulers, as well as neighboring communities such as Scottsdale, Mesa and Gilbert, Ariz.

The growing populations of this client list deliver 2,200 tons of waste to the Salt River Landfill every day.

With a 35-acre cell under construction, General Manager Alfred Thomas says the landfill should be able to accept waste for another 11 years. “Our projected closing time was anticipated to be 2008,” he says of the new cell. “We're going to extend that life to 2015.”

The landfill opened in October 1993, when its predecessor, the unlined Tri-City Landfill, also located on community land, closed. The closed site now boasts a gas-to-energy plant developed in cooperation with Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District. In 2002, the 4-megawatt Tri-Cities Landfill Gas Generating Facility began producing enough energy to power about 2,000 homes.

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