Once you get past the smell--there are spots that can stink to high heaven--watching the hundreds of trucks roll in and out of the Ada County Landfill each day is awe-inspiring, as each truck empties its own heap of disarray from the region's neighborhoods: a bucket-load of rotten food here, tons of cardboard there, and countless diapers here, there and everywhere. The exact contents of Ada County's landfill, which many residents may be surprised to learn is economically self-sustainable, has remained a mystery for generations. Until now.
In fact, as this edition of Boise Weekly was hitting the streets (a few of which will probably make their way to the dump), a team of moon-suited individuals was poised to greet that steady stream of garbage trucks, ready to sort through piles of newly arrived trash as part of a first-of-its-kind garbage census, officially known as the "Ada County Waste Stream Analysis." This week's innovative trash-count is taking place over four days, May 12-15; and, together with three other counts in November, March and July, is expected to reveal yet-unknown facts about what we so readily discard and why so much of it has no business being in any landfill.
"The public makes the decision of what has or hasn't any value. It's the individual's determination of what is wasteful," said Ted Hutchinson, deputy Solid Waste director for Ada County. "I think it's a fair bet that 25 to 40 percent of this landfill probably could, or should, have been recycled."
Hutchinson, a 23-year veteran of county operations, surveyed the unique scene: officially known as the Hidden Hollow Cell and opened in the 1970s, Ada County's first official landfill sprawls across 108 acres. But a visitor would be hard-pressed to guess what lay beneath Hutchinson's feet: decades worth of trash, all compacted and covered with an already-healthy growth of brush beginning to cover its exterior. In fact, the view from atop of the now-closed Hidden Hollow landfill--a perspective that not many citizens have the privilege of seeing--is a rather spectacular vista of the Treasure Valley. But the tight-as-a-drum Hidden Hollow Cell is only a small piece of the 2,700-acre puzzle that makes up Ada County's entire landfill operation.
"You think this is big? Wait 'til we go over to the North Cell," said Hutchinson, climbing into his SUV to drive over to what is called the North Ravine Cell--281 acres divided in 14 "stages."
"And we're only beginning the second stage at North Ravine; we have a long way to go," he said "This is a 100-year-solution."
As the SUV rolled up to the North Ravine Cell, we were met by a parade of trucks--some from Republic Services, some personal vehicles--dumping huge volumes of garbage onto a steadily growing heap, while a 100,000-pound vehicle nicknamed "the Beast" rolled back and forth across the giant mound in an effort to compact it. Once packed, a tarp and dirt would be laid over it so yet another layer of garbage could follow the next day. A quick survey of the landfill revealed scores of appliances, enough clothing to fill a department store and an extraordinary number of child car seats--many of the manufacturers don't make the seats adaptable as children grow, thus leading untold numbers to end up in the nation's landfills.
One of the biggest surprises regarding the landfill is its bookkeeping: It is managed through its own cost center. Simply put, it pays for itself. And then some.
"We're not funded with tax dollars," said Dave Logan, director of Ada County's Operations Department. "The landfill is its own enterprise fund and we have to pay for everything we do--all of our daily operations and our obligations."
And those obligations are long-term, stretching 30 years or more after a landfill has been filled.
"Once we close a landfill, such as we did with Hidden Hollow, there's no more income coming in, but we're still responsible for its maintenance and the groundwater and air monitoring," Logan said.
Not to mention the hundreds of wells that have been drilled into the Hidden Hollow landfill, which pump much of that god-awful stink toward a gas-to-energy facility.
"Our system of over 200 wells applies negative pressure to the closed landfill, drawing gas down and sending it over to the electrical generation facility," said Hutchison, pointing to two enclosures sitting on one acre of land.
Ada County currently has an exclusive $254,000 annual contract with a private company, Fortistar, which converts approximately 2,400 cubic feet of landfill gas per minute into a constant flow of electricity, producing approximately 3.2 megawatts--enough to power about 2,400 homes.
"We're not generating a profit yet, because we've had a lot of operational expense to drill and maintain the wells," said Hutchinson, who estimated that the Hidden Hollow gas-to-energy process should recoup costs possibly in 10 years.
Additionally, Ada County recently invested $3.2 million in a so-called "scrubber" to help reduce some of the odors from the gas that is extracted for conversion.
But the big news--this week's trash analysis--can be traced back to one of the most controversial episodes in Ada County history.
"Honestly, the idea came to me when I was reviewing one of the permits for the proposed Dynamis project," said Sara Arkle, community conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League. "I was looking at some of Dynamis' emissions estimates, and I realized that they had no idea what kind of trash they were going to be burning."
Ada County residents will remember the Dynamis debacle: Ada County paid Dynamis $2 million for designs for a trash-to-energy facility. Few details but many complaints followed, triggering investigations and lawsuits. The county ultimately slinked away from the deal, swallowing the $2 million as a loss.
"Yes, we need to really investigate our future opportunities for alternative sources of energy. We really need to do our homework with good data," Logan said when BW asked about Dynamis. "And we need more public input. We need to take our time and do it right."
And that failed venture presented an opportunity "to get it right," said Arkle.
"At that point, folks in the community were pretty frustrated over the Dynamis proposal,' she told BW. "So this new analysis project, to determine exactly what is in our landfill, seemed like a positive way to learn from that experience and pivot off of that failed investment."
Hutchinson said the results from the landfill analysis are certain to spur countless conversations and ideas in the community.
"For example, I can't get over how much carpeting is in our landfill," he said, pointing to rolls and rolls of it. "Someday, I would really like to see a special recycling program for that. Who knows? Maybe in the future. I'm excited about the business opportunities here."
Arkle looked out over the same pile of garbage and agreed that there was only opportunity inside the heap.
"When we have the kind of information that we expect to get from the analysis, it will really make it easy for Ada County to help shift the public's perspective from looking at something as a commodity instead of a piece of trash," she said. "I truly believe that more people will have an idea that a lot of what ends up in that landfill is still pretty valuable."