Waste and Recycling – How Waste Works

By Melissa A. Palumbo
Delta Digital News Service

CRAIGHEAD COUNTY – An almost inevitable part of everyday life, garbage takes a long journey from a kitchen bin to a landfill.

Larger corporations hire independent sanitation companies to remove waste. For most people, whether it is put into a curbside trash bin or an apartment dumpster, waste gets taken away by the city sanitation department.

The sanitation department in Jonesboro services about 30,000 people, according to Cindy Schweitzer, supervisor of the Jonesboro Sanitation Department.

“We have seven to eight trucks that pick up residential and three smaller trucks for rear-door and disabled services,” Schweitzer said. They use different types of trucks for different needs. “We also have two rear-load, one front-load and one side-load truck for the apartment dumpsters,” she said.

The operators for the trucks drive different routes each day of the week, according to Jerry Murrell, operator one for Jonesboro Sanitation 

Once completing the garbage pickup routes throughout the city, the Jonesboro Sanitation Department takes all of the waste directly to Legacy Landfill. Their trucks sometimes make two-to-three trips to the landfill a day, Schweitzer said.

Arkansas is divided into 18 regional solid waste management districts, and waste generated in each district must be disposed of in that district, according to Angela Sparks, deputy director of Legacy Landfill in Craighead County. 

Districts vary in size, with some spanning as many as six counties. Craighead County, however, is a single-county district. Incorporated in 1985, most garbage in Craighead County goes to Legacy Landfill.

The landfill can’t take everything, though. Different types of permits allow for waste disposal; Legacy Landfill attained a class one permit, Sparks said. A class one landfill is the only class that is allowed to take residential trash, but it can also be used for disposal by businesses. 

The landfill in Craighead County won’t take any waste that is flammable, corrosive, ignitable or radioactive. Fire being a hazard for landfills, they can not accept any grass clippings, leaves or small tree limbs — those are brought to an incinerator at the Sanitation Department.

The landfill also won’t take large amounts of liquids to reduce leaching. 

Leaching results from waste disposal and, if it isn’t done properly, can cause damage to the environment. Toxicants and harmful liquids, like bleach or other chemicals, can seep into the ground and poison vital groundwater, as well as harm ecosystems.

Legacy Landfill’s system redirects any leaching into tanks outside of the landfill, which is then transported to a water treatment facility.

“We use PVC pipes at the bottom with gravel over the top to catch liquids that seep through,” Sparks said. 

Under the pipes, two feet of compacted clay and a thick layer of plastic further ensure protection.  

According to Sparks, the landfill is large enough to last “another 100 years,” but she said there’s a good chance we won’t need it for that long. 

“That’s assuming waste is disposed of the same way from now on as it is right now,” Sparks said. “Waste is not disposed of the same way now as it was 50 years ago, so there’s no reason to think that 50 years from now it’ll be the same. It’s going to change.”

With more green-conscious thinking and the emergence of the zero-waste lifestyle, people are trying to reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills. 

An environmental concern about landfills is the production of methane, a greenhouse gas that can contribute to global warming. It comes from the decomposition of organic materials, like food scraps, when there is a lack of oxygen. 

Not only is methane a danger to the atmosphere, but it can be ignitible and explosive. Because the gas is colorless and odorless, this can be very dangerous and hard to detect. 

Legacy Landfill has implemented a gas collection system – a series of tubes that removes all the methane – to be flared off in what Sparks called “the eternal flame.” This reduces the risk of fire as well as cuts down on the landfill’s impact on the environment tremendously. 

Sparks said the landfill is working with the energy company Integrity to find a way to use the excess methane as a source of renewable energy. 

“Integrity did a survey on the area, and they think we’ll be able to use the gas as an energy project,”  Sparks said. “We’re hoping to get that up in the next couple of years.”

As one of about 2,000 operating landfills in America, Legacy Landfill is working toward reducing the harm waste does to the environment. 

Editor’s Note: Photos by Melissa Palumbo