How a Landfill Tour Gave Us a New Perspective on Trash

Owen and a few family members toured a landfill recently and we came back with renewed enthusiasm for reducing our waste and the impact it has on our environment. We see garbage trucks take our trash away, drive by transfer stations where it’s kept temporarily, but until this tour we did not have a full appreciation for where our trash ends up and why it’s important to do our best to reduce our impact.

We visited the Cedar Hills Landfill 20 miles southeast of Seattle, which is the only operating landfill in King County. Though Seattle sends its trash to a landfill in Oregon, nearly all other cities in King County send their trash to the landfill we visited and have been doing that for many years.

The Cedar Hills landfill operates tours free for the public and we highly recommend signing up for one. A supervisor drove three of us around in his pickup and told us in detail how landfills work. He has worked in the industry for many years and answered all of our questions in great detail.

From our tour guide and from seeing the process up close, we came away with three reasons we are now more motivated than ever to do the right thing with our waste.

Our Trash Gets Piled Higher and Higher but Never Goes Away

The Cedar Hills landfill opened in 1965 and the process for dumping trash has not changed much since. After getting picked up from our homes and dropped off at a transfer station, trash is sent to a landfill in a larger truck that is ‘tipped’ into the landfill itself (like the photo above). Machines then push piles of trash aside before another type of machine compacts it. Trash gets higher and higher until it hits the 800 foot limit above sea level it is allowed to reach. Older sections of the landfill have grass over them and look like a meadow, but only a few feet below the surface is trash from years past. Trash ordinarily stays in place at this point, but we learned a section was recently excavated so more capacity could be build on this site. We couldn’t believe when we were told that this excavated section was sent to Oregon since there was nowhere else to put it at Cedar Hills!

Both People and Wildlife Live Remarkably Close to the Landfill

During our tour we saw dozens of bald eagles and a handful of deer on the landfill property. These animals are presumably feeding on plants and water that has come into contact with our buried trash. We also saw homes that were only a short distance from working sections of the landfill. A 1000-foot buffer zone makes sure people do not live too close, but neighbors still sometimes complain of smells that workers then investigate. Because of the danger posed by gas leaks, people living nearby have access to a 24-hour phone line to report odd smells. Workers who have undergone special training then do their best to distinguish between harmful gas releases and things that just smell unpleasant (like from the compost facility next door). Seeing both homes and animals so close to a landfill made us wonder why landfills are not placed in more remote areas. The solid waste division seems to have been concerned about this too, since we learned they have been buying some of the closer homes to the landfill so they would no longer be inhabited.

Managing Water Contamination is Especially Challenging

‘Leachate’ is water that comes in contact with trash. Our tour guide said water contamination like this is the environmental concept most concerning to landfill operators. Some of the more dangerous water we saw had what looked like a white film on top of it like you can see in the photo. Scientists work out of this facility and measure different levels of contaminants. Some of the contaminated water needs additional treatment and is sent away to a facility in Renton. Because this facility has been around for over 50 years, dangerous materials that were once common like lead paint and asbestos are likely found in the ground. Our wet climate poses challenges not faced in other parts of the country as water is more likely to move around from place to place. The EPA was the regulatory body most often mentioned by our tour guide, so it’s important that they receive the support and funding to make sure landfill-contaminated water does not cause problems in our area.

Seeing what happens to our trash, how close it gets to wildlife, and how it comes into contact with water, made us think about what we can do to lessen the impact from our waste. The most meaningful change we can make is to ensure that more stuff is diverted from landfills. Our tour guide told us that over 70% of what reaches this landfill could have been recycled or composted. Though we probably have less recyclable materials in our trash, we are always learning of new ways to divert more of our waste and are excited to share these with Owen’s List in the months ahead.

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