Trash Talk

From the top of Mount Milam to the depths of the Pit with the people who take out St. Louis' garbage

The earliest records on the landfill date back to the late 1950s. For most of its existence, it was managed rather haphazardly and was about as popular with locals as a smoldering tire fire. Arnold, who grew up in nearby Highland, describes the early landfill as "this big, stinky mound, which often caught fire." Waste Management purchased the landfill from Laidlaw in 1984 and soon implemented a series of improvements. One of these was to effectively capture the methane gas produced by the decomposing garbage. This gas is converted to electricity. That's right: In a sort of consumer-style symbiosis, that sack of garbage carried out to the Dumpster will eventually help power the household so that more garbage can be produced.

The landfill gas is a product of the anaerobic bacteria breaking down the organic garbage; it's vented through 54 wells and six miles of collection pipe to the gas-recovery plant, a spare, nondescript structure located at the base of the mound. Inside, at a neat desk, Doug Yearian, 43, monitors various multicolored graphs on a computer screen. The graphs, with their accompanying numbers and percentages, indicate the mixtures of gas in the landfill. Yearian is a well-field technician whose primary job is to "tune" the wells -- that is, fiddle with all the gauges, knobs and levers until the gas mixture being drawn from the flatulent mound is just right. "Landfill gas has got to go somewhere," he says. "You pull the vacuum in the pipes, and that becomes the easiest place for it to go. We're pulling in 1.2 million cubic feet of gas a day, strictly off garbage."

Yearian's work area is small compared with the operation on the other side of a big plate-glass window. Three 16-cylinder spark-ignited diesel engines hum consonantly, powered by piped-in methane. Attached to the tail end of each engine is a studly 800-kilowatt generator, producing 2,400 kilowatts per hour. "What we don't use for our own purposes goes to the AmerenUE grid," says Yearian over the din. "They tell us that when running full load, we're supplying about 3,500 homes with electricity each day." Since 1991, the plant has generated almost 150 billion kilowatt hours. By using methane as an alternative energy source, the plant saves 44,000 barrels of oil per year. Before this gas-to-electricity operation, the gases were burned off in pipes poking up from the mound -- simply wasted.

The gas-recovery plant converts the methane produced by Milam Landfill's decomposing trash into power, supplying about 3,500 homes with electricity each day.
Jennifer Silverberg
The gas-recovery plant converts the methane produced by Milam Landfill's decomposing trash into power, supplying about 3,500 homes with electricity each day.
Art Clair of Superior Services has been hauling or handling trash for 23 years, and he now works the verdant streets of Ladue: "These customers know me by name, and they appreciate the work I do. A few them keeps a cooler with sody in it for me."
Jennifer Silverberg
Art Clair of Superior Services has been hauling or handling trash for 23 years, and he now works the verdant streets of Ladue: "These customers know me by name, and they appreciate the work I do. A few them keeps a cooler with sody in it for me."

"If we shut down today," offers Yearian, "we believe there would be enough good methane for at least another 30 years. After that, it would taper off." Yearian emphasizes the verb "believe" because there are not many energy-producing landfills the size of Milam, so postoperative productivity is not well documented. The average landfill takes in 3,000-4,000 tons a day, but Milam takes in 6,000-8,000 tons a day.

Meanwhile, on Mount Milam, the day's trash is covered nightly with a blanket of dirt and mulch, which functions on several levels: It facilitates decomposition, it keeps the stench down and it keeps debris from blowing. The hungry seagulls will have to wait until dawn and a new day's inflow of trash for their repast. The mulch is made on-site from tons and tons of arriving yard waste -- a mixture of grass clippings, tree branches, dogshit and what-have-you. "First we grind it up," says Joe Durako, 38, Waste Management Inc. vice president and Milam's head honcho, "and then put it into windrows, which we measure for moisture and temperature. We turn it with machinery, and it sort of cooks over time and turns into a pretty good ... we call it topsoil. We have really sandy soil over here, so this mulch helps with grass growth. We don't like to see a lot of brown dirt and erosion."

Because Milam's chief commodity is airspace, as Durako jocularly states, large chunks of concrete are not welcome, and it becomes necessary to break them down. "We have a rock-crushing operation here that takes foundations, bridge decks, sidewalks, things of that nature," says Durako. "We grind it up and turn it into a size of gravel that we like to use here, mostly for on-site roads, and basically to keep it out of the landfill."

Concrete isn't going to break down with any expediency, but other things considered biodegradable are taking their time as well. Borings made deep into landfills are reported to have produced newspapers still legible, hot dogs still pink on the inside. Durako explains that this is due in part to the daily applications of mulch to each day's fresh trash. It's like a hermetic seal, he says: "You're constantly covering it, so you naturally have layers that cap and close off things."

Five days a week, the trucks pull through the gate, bearing all sorts of waste, including industrial sludge. But mostly, says Durako, it is "municipal solid waste, household garbage, the stuff you and I put out at the curb." Paper is the single largest waste item in the landfill. According to a recent report issued by the Recycling Section of the city of St. Louis' Refuse Division, paper occupies 38 percent of space in the average landfill, despite the fact that it is the most easily recycled material.

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