Really interesting story about a place most of us would not think to visit.
The open face of the Atascocita landfill in Humble slopes downward, where trucks unload the cast-off scraps of daily life. Bulldozers spread the debris to a depth of a few feet before trucks with spiked tires take turns compacting the heap, lumbering over the uneven surface.
Some 500 trucks dump garbage here each day and the mound keeps growing – but not as fast as it did just a decade ago, thanks to consumers’ recycling and composting habits and an effort by manufacturers to use lighter-weight materials for packaging. Population growth is what keeps the garbage pile growing now. Nationally, per-capita disposal rates have dropped close to the levels of the 1990s.
Houston-based Waste Management, the nation’s largest municipal waste company, said it lost $188 million in revenue last year, and $133 million the year before from lower volumes of all the materials it collects in trash and recycling. The company runs 247 solid waste landfills in the U.S. and Canada.
Its landfill management business, however, has fared better than collection and recycling, the company reported. Its landfills also accept waste from other collection companies that pay to drop the trash there. About 70 percent of the waste that comes in to Atascocita arrives on Waste Management trucks.
There, 25 employees process 4,500 tons of trash per day six days a week. Starting at 5 a.m. they’re screening for hazardous waste and taking trucks’ weight on scales. Others check the more than 30 pipes that gather gasses from completed landfill, herd trash trucks in and move screens around the open landfill to catch stray paper on windy days.
Nationally, in 2013 we sent 11 million fewer tons of trash to landfills than we did in 1990 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.
Last year Texans each produced 6.58 pounds of waste per day. Though that’s higher than the last several years, the number didn’t drop below 7 pounds per person from 2000 until 2009, when the recession led to less consumption and less trash.
But according to the EPA, the amount of waste each American tosses reached its lowest point in 2013 since 1990. The agency estimates that about 2.89 pounds of trash per person each day actually ends up in a landfill.
Texas’ numbers are calculated differently to include some construction waste and don’t account for diversion to recycling and compost.
Recycling is cutting out a lot of the waste we now send to a sealed, compacted mound of trash.
The EPA reported that in 2013 more than a third of waste was recycled. Of the total 254 million tons of waste generated by American households and businesses last year, 87 million tons were diverted from landfills. We’re also using less paper, in the office and for the newspapers we read, reducing a lot of waste.
“Part of it is more aggressive recycling and part of it is from the packaging perspective there’s been a lot of light-weighting,” said Chuck Rivette, regional director of planning and project development for Waste Management.
Most packaging uses less material than it did several decades ago. Plastic water bottles use as much as 50 percent less plastic and thin plastic pouches have replaced bulkier plastic bottles and boxes.
“Even if you bought the same number of bottles an didn’t change your habits, your (trash) generation’s gone down,” said Anne Germain, director of waste and recycling technology for the National Waste & Recycling Association.
Like I said, a good read, and you’ll likely learn something from it as I did. The city’s goal needs to be to continue the downward trend of each person’s waste per day. More recycling – I was glad to hear multiple Mayoral candidates talk about bringing recycling to apartment complexes – and more composting would be good starts. If that means instituting a trash fee – to fund such activity and to help ease the current budget shortfall – then so be it. However we do it, that’s the destination we need to aim for – more recycling, more composting, less trash sent to landfills.