Columbia's garbage: where it goes and how it gets there

Friday, August 20, 2010 | 3:17 p.m. CDT; updated 6:58 a.m. CDT, Monday, August 23, 2010

COLUMBIA — The name “Goliath” was welded in the steel on the rear of the garbage truck, but this strength was only apparent when the truck came to a stop.

Trash bags, lifted from the street by Cameron Whittaker, remained visible for only seconds. Whittaker, after pulling a series of levers, brought down the truck’s noisy compactor.

He hopped back on his small platform, and the truck drives to the next house. 

“You never know what you’ll find,” said Ian Lindsay, the truck's driver. “Nothing would surprise me.”

Lindsay and Whittaker are two of 16 trash collectors who work five days a week, driving a total of eight trucks to every corner of Columbia. They start each morning at 7:30, and collection usually takes until 3 p.m. to complete.

The city's Solid Waste Division collected 13,750 tons of trash in 2009, according to city documents. In years before, this figure was even higher: in 2007, 15,000 tons were collected; in 2008, this figure was more than 16,000 tons.

“Over the last several years the tonnage has gone down,” said Layli Terrill, Waste Minimization Officer with the City of Columbia. “And this decreases the revenue for the Solid Waste Division and the Public Works Department overall."

On a quiet street, as the sun beat down in the July heat, the collectors paused to drink water from a five-gallon cooler attached to the side of the truck. Whittaker filled and emptied his water bottle in seconds. They do not worry about the heat, they say, just as they will not mind the cold when winter comes.

Small talk was neglected, and they instead called their dispatch to identify if other trucks would benefit from assistance.

“Some routes are shorter than others, and some drivers are more experienced and cover their routes quicker,” Terrill said. “If they get done early then they'll help someone else.”

There is no limit to how much trash can be thrown away, she said, as long as each bag weighs less than 50 pounds. The length of the eight routes varies, and depending on how much trash is collected each truck will be filled and emptied up to twice per day.

All garbage collected in Columbia is taken to a common destination: the Columbia Sanitary Landfill. This facility, located in northeast Columbia, is open to companies and individuals from within the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District, which serves Boone and seven surrounding counties.

The landfill processes 700 tons of garbage each day. Most of the landfill's property is fertile and covered by small vegetation, and Cynthia Mitchell, the Landfill Superintendent, said this is intentional and necessary. To meet Environmental Protection Agency requirements, the landfill must bury or cover all trash it receives each day.

The landfill’s location, Mitchell said, will allow for future growth. 107 acres of land have already been permitted for use by the landfill; enough for 20 years of operation. The landfill can also apply for permits that will allow for nearly 500 more acres to be used, this will allow the facility to remain in operation past 2050.

“The planning that was done in the 1970s provided us enough space to last for years,” she said. “Some of the landfills built in cities don’t have this benefit and fill up quickly.”

The current landfill system, begun in the early 1990s, uses cells, or excavated holes, covering up to 10 acres. Six cells will ultimately be excavated, but only one is open at any given time. Cells 1-3 have already been filled, Cell 4 is nearing capacity, and will be replaced when construction on Cell 5 is completed in 2011.

Each cell sits on top of an impermeable plastic liner; trash is dumped from the trucks and further compacted by two bulldozers. As each day comes to an end, large tarps are drawn across the exposed trash face to form a temporary cover, and when a cell reaches its capacity it is more permanently covered with dirt fill, Mitchell said.

Like the Solid Waste division, the Columbia Sanitary Landfill has seen a decrease in the total amount of garbage processed annually. The landfill processes 150,000 tons each year, Mitchell said. This is less than amounts from previous years, which averaged about 175,000 tons, and this decrease directly translates to lost revenue for the landfill.

The landfill is run as an enterprise fund, which means it does not receive city subsidies. The current fee, $32.50 per ton of garbage, has remained the same for over a decade.

“We are completely user-fee funded, which means our cost of operation have got to be covered by the fee we charge,” she said.

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