Alaska Waste driver Will Bunch nodded at the mud as he navigated a heavy truck through milling crowds of seagulls.
“Back in January, we were filling up this half,” he said. “Now it’s way over here.”
Trucks from across the peninsula bring in dozens of tons of trash at a time and deposit it in the pit called a cell, to be eventually buried. It doesn’t take decades to fill one.
Each day, he drives prescribed routes to homes and businesses, looping from homes deep in the Nikiski woods to oil and gas businesses where he has to punch in passcodes to enter the gate. Ticking off each stop as he goes, he knows businesses by their trash habits. In July, he would pull expertly up to a garbage bin in Old Town Kenai, emptying its contents into the back of the truck by mechanical arms in less than a minute as dipnetters messily cleaned fish on a table nearby. He nodded as he emptied one garbage bin not marked for fish garbage.
“Yeah, there’s some fish in there,” he said. “It gets really bad with these bins that you empty once a week, because the fish start decaying.”
At the landfill, he wheeled the truck around and backed it next to a mound of trash, where another driver was dropping off his own load. Bunch jumped out and unlatched the hook holding the back hatch in place, stepped back to the cab of the truck and triggered a lever that pushed the loaf of trash out to join the rest. About five tons of trash of all colors and states of decay came tumbling out: cardboard boxes, kitchen bags, solitary soda bottles and a five-gallon bucket. Without ceremony, Bunch secured the hatch again and prepared to head out to gather more.
About 98 percent of the Kenai Peninsula’s approximately 57,763 residents send their trash to the landfill just outside Soldotna. The average person in the U.S. produced about 4.4 pounds of waste per day in 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
By the numbers, the Central Peninsula Landfill accepted an estimated 66,877 tons of garbage in 2015, or approximately 133.7 million pounds of garbage. Trash production swings from a high in July to a low in the winter months. About 400 tons of trash arrive each day at the Central Peninsula Landfill in July, compared to 75 to 80 tons in the winter, according to borough records.
Kenai Peninsula Borough voters will be asked to approve $10.6 million in bonds on the ballot this October to plan and build new space for waste disposal. As time goes on and the population of the borough grows, the landfill will have to accommodate more trash unless people recycle more or generate less to begin with.
What becomes of garbage
Solid waste management goes beyond just drag-and-drop. After drivers like Bunch trundle back out to make their rounds, workers at the Central Peninsula Landfill set in on what is left behind.
Trash comes in a variety of types. The most common is municipal solid waste — kitchen waste, tires and blue jeans all fit into that category. Construction and demolition waste goes into its own area in the landfill. Land-clearing and wood debris have a designated space next to construction and demolition material. Asbestos goes into its own space, as do junk vehicles and scrap metals, according to the borough Solid Waste Department’s 2015 report.
Central Peninsula Landfill uses a system of lined cells to bury waste. The plastic liners prevent liquids from the buried garbage from leaching into the ground. At the end of each day, the waste is leveled and covered with either a soil mixture or a temporary daily cover.
Soldotna used to run what is now the Central Peninsula Landfill. The borough picked up operations there in 1974; in 1990, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly designated it as the areawide landfill. Previously operating landfills in Kenai, Seward and Homer were then closed. All waste on the road systems is now routed to Soldotna.
The borough built its first lined cell to handle waste in 2005, closing the old unlined cell permanently in 2007. Since then, the first cell has been filled and closed and all the municipal solid waste goes into Cell 2. The borough is in the process of excavating Cell 3 now and will ask the public this fall to approve a bond issuance of more than $10 million to fund its construction as well as the future construction of a fourth cell.
Once the trash is buried, it doesn’t just stay there.
“It’s not like we just bury it and be done with it,” said Jack Maryott, director of the borough’s Solid Waste Department. “We’re actually treating the waste here at this landfill, and a lot of people don’t realize that.”
Landfills produce wastewater, both from naturally occurring moisture and from stormwater, which runs off the garbage and can contain dissolved organic matter, heavy metals and other contaminants. The wastewater, called leachate, has to be collected and treated. One way to do that is through an evaporator.
The leachate is collected and directed into a lagoon and storage tank. Landfill operators then reapply the leachate to the landfill, using a variety of methods. To treat it, managers evaporate the leachate through a thermal system.
Another element is the landfill gas produced as waste decays. Earlier this year, the borough commissioned a study from CH2M Hill on how to harness the gas produced from decaying garbage in the landfill to use it rather than simply emitting it.
The study was completed earlier this summer, and the most viable option seems to be converting the gas to electricity and selling it for utility use. The borough is still in discussions about the potential uses, but it looks like it would be another way to use a resource that already exists to help support operations, Maryott said.
Dropping a day
The landfill also came up as a place to trim some expenses during the borough’s fiscal year 2017 budget discussions. Borough Mayor Mike Navarre’s proposed budget included a cut to shift the landfill’s operations to six days per week instead of the current seven.
Commercial trash haulers objected. At the assembly meetings, representatives of Alaska Waste said the havoc the closure would cause would not be worth the estimated $250,000 in annual savings; members of the borough assembly said they were concerned the closure could lead to illegal dumping; members of the public said there would likely be trash piled up outside the transfer sites because of the closure.
In the end, the borough assembly passed a modified form of the proposal in its budget: Central Peninsula Landfill will close for one day per week from September through May and remain open seven days per week in June, July and August.
As of Oct. 2, Central Peninsula Landfill will close on Sundays. The move will save the borough an estimated $150,000 annually, according to the final budget.
Sara Crapuchettes, who manages the peninsula’s accounts for Alaska Waste, said the company will work around the closures but was frustrated by the borough’s lack of communication with the contractors. Using funding on non-essential services seems wrong when cutting from an essential service like trash, she said.
“There are three things the borough is supposed to handle: roads, education and trash,” she said.
The closure could impact the way trash haulers operate each week, said Lloyd Moore, who runs Moore & Moore Services in Homer, an independent waste hauling service. Alaska Waste handles the majority of the waste on the peninsula, while Moore & Moore works specifically in Homer, Anchor Point, Diamond Ridge and Fritz Creek, Moore said.
Moore’s drivers have to haul the garbage up to Soldotna from Homer. If the landfill is closed one day per week, garbage doesn’t stop — the trucks will have to haul both days’ garbage the next day. But they’ll have to get it done in the same number of hours, as the landfill is only open from 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. each day. Driving from Homer, with the approximately hour-and-a-half drive with good road conditions, can make that difficult.
“I think they’re going to get hit with so much tonnage that they’re going to be short-staffed,” Moore said. “(In) Homer, we’re going to have trash stacked up from the weekend. We’re going to take all that trash that they would have hauled on … Sunday, and then we’re going to give it to them on Monday.”
Maryott said borough administrators have been discussing the situation with waste contractors all along. The differential in tonnage between Saturday and Sunday is significant, he said.
Navarre said in a previous Clarion interview the borough would watch the Sunday closure for its effects. If it clearly doesn’t work, the borough will re-evaluate. As it is, closing the landfill on Sundays lined up with current half-day closures at the transfer sites in Seward and Homer, and the landfill accepts the lowest waste tonnage on Sundays each week, he said.
Waste not want not
The cells are built to last about five years and scaled for population. However, there’s only so much space Central Peninsula Landfill has. Eventually, landfill administrators will run out of room for new cells and have to make a decision about whether to find a new spot or to incinerate.
The borough does have a recycling program. It’s never been designed to turn a profit — more often than not, it costs the borough money to have recyclabes picked up, Maryott said, but it does keep them out of the landfill. Monofilament fishing line can take up to 600 years to decompose in the environment. A plastic bottle may take 450, and a tin can may take 50 years, according to the National Park Service.
There isn’t much of a market for recycled materials in Alaska. Many of them leave the state and are shipped to Seattle through Anchorage. The borough has worked out an agreement with three transport companies — Tote, Matson and Lynden Transportation — which will transport recycled goods for free, saving the borough between $30,000 and $40,000 annually, Maryott said.
Plastics are bulky and take a lot of resources to haul, and even if they’re recycled, they often don’t bring in a profit. The commodities market vacillates by the day, but Maryott said he doesn’t think the borough has ever turned a profit on the plastics recycling program. That’s part of why it isn’t offered at any of the small waste transfer sites like Kasilof, Funny River or Nikiski — the resources it takes to transfer recyclables don’t balance out with the costs.
The borough is planning a pilot study on a small composting route in Homer. For $50,000, its first route will include between 15 and 20 businesses and will collect organic waste and take it to specific container at the Homer transfer site, where the borough staff will be able to quantify how much is being picked up — thus the pilot part of it, Maryott said. From there, a contractor will handle the composting.
“It costs us about $20 a ton to haul it to (Central Peninsula Landfill), plus the cost of burial,” Maryott said. “If it costs us $19 to haul (the compost) at the dump, we’re a dollar ahead.”
Changing one’s habits to recycle more is simple, Moore said. He switched to recycling and composting himself a few years ago.
“We got to looking at what we were doing and said, ‘This is ridiculous.’” Moore said. “Now instead of generating two bags of trash at the house, we generate one small bag a day and take it out just for cleanliness.”
Moore said he thinks it would make sense for the landfill to charge for trash disposal but make recycling free to incentivize people to recycle more.
“If people don’t want to sort their trash, they can just pay and throw it away,” Moore said. “This is a way to generate revenue and keep from filling up our landfill. That needs to be addressed, or our children are going to be paying the price there. It’s a way to change the way we do business.”
The rhetoric in the solid waste management business has changed over time, Maryott said. In the 1980s, it was all about recycling after consumption. Now it’s about reducing consumption in the first place.
“To put these programs out there, to try to get people to reduce — that is the only thing that’s going to reduce their waste,” he said. “People changing their habits and not producing waste.”