Only four short years ago, Sonoma County, California residents were subjected to junk hauling trucks rumbling through their neighborhoods on the way to the Mecham Road dump, but that's changed as junk and trash haulers are diverting trash to the new destination 60 miles away, Solano County's Potrero Hills Landfill. The Mecham Road dump was closed due to concerns it could contaminate groundwater. Potrero Hills Landfill is expected expanded shortly.
The controversy of the proposed expansion mirrors the rationale for the closure of the first landfill and many others, namely, landfills pose threats to the integrity of local waterways, due to leaks, and the additional tighter federal regulations on landfill development, presents an undesirable ultimatum: close those that cannot be adequately improved or expand those that can.
Three landfills in three different counties have been closed down (or are due to be). Of those that remain, they are expanded in order to offset those losses - bring haulers from farther and farther afield.
"There's a lot more consolidation," said Kathy Cote, environmental services manager with the city of Fremont. California. And worse yet, despite the investment in expansion, many landfills, like the Tri-Cities Landfill, which is expected to reach maximum capacity in the next two years, are reaching their threshold.
Where is all that Trash Going?
The expense and challenges of building new landfills, is leading to greater consolidation and replacing city landfills with regional ones. Moving to regional landfills with greater capacities is a temporary fix and while it alleviates some issues it raises others, some of which could be more hazardous. The first of these is that larger landfills are often older and less expensive. Because these "megadumps" are so cheap they also attract trash from other counties, essentially short-circuiting incentives to recycle.
Another side-effect is that these more remote locations means longer trash hauling trips, increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet another other side-effect, is that because these sites are "out of sight, out of mind", it becomes even more attractive to use them, rather than more environmentally sustainable options, such as recycling or composting facilities, according to David Tam, an environmental advocate with the group Sustainability, Parks, Recycling And Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF).
Jumping Through Hoops
Things move slowly in the world of waste regulation. Landfill and waste managers have to work to keep on point with changing regulations, as areas once considered "unimportant", have become environmentally protected, and applicable regulations for existing and proposed landfill sites can take years to navigate.
One example of this is the grassroots, citizen-driven Save the Bay campaign, which has resulted in efforts to protect what were originally wetlands and marshes. Efforts such as these are among the factors that have suspended new landfill approval for nearly two decades. And across the United States, it is nearly as difficult to obtain approval for a new landfill.
Where Did it Begin and Where Will it All End?
It was the late 80s that saw broad federal regulations that altered the landfill landscape. Remaining in business meant that landfill operators had to monitor emissions and install impermeable liners. These additional costs resulted in a precipitous drop from 8,100 nationwide, to roughly 2,200 today, in the course of two decades.
Rather than new landfills and the public outcry they can create - they hoped that by expanding existing ones, the impact of landfills in local communities would be relatively less.
Though the Zero Waste campaign - diverting all waste away from landfill to compost, reuse, or recycling facilities - has experienced increasing public support, there will always be a need for landfill, caution landfill operators, and those conduits between citizens and them, trash haulers.
"We're on a path toward zero waste but we're not there yet, and there's a finite amount of landfill space in the Bay Area," said Recology spokesman Adam Alberti. "A big part of it is that consumers need to change their behaviors - not just in recycling, but in consumption."
- David Singer, "San Francisco Junk Hauling and Trash Removal Services," Fast Haul, http://www.fasthaul.com/san-francisco-hauling.
- Kelly Zito, "Bay Area Landfills either Closing or Expanding," SF Gate, http://www.sfgate.com/green/article/Bay-Area-landfills-either-closing-or-expanding-3209485.php.