The Magic Can 

How an official trip to the Hidden Hollow Sanitary Landfill helped cure me of any recycling resistance

I've been to Hidden Hollow Sanitary Landfill several times over the last couple of decades. But during my most recent trip, the familiar landscape took on a subtle, unexpected level of detail.

click to enlarge ADAM ROSENLUND

To the left is a rising skyscraper of pungent trash. A green couch missing one arm rides precariously atop a spray of branches, food wrappers, diapers, plastic milk jugs, two-by-fours and tattered bits of clothing. To the right is a large blue metal dumpster, a full-length wooden framed mirror and a small chair visible at the top. Several gigantic hills of wood chips surround a gargantuan chipper. A house-sized pile of pebbly asphalt lies just beyond. A cityscape of computer monitors and old TVs wrapped in plastic with big orange numbers indicating how many are in each stack—19, 12, 14—loom over hundreds more scattered over the ground. Nearby sits a clustered metal village of old stoves, air-conditioning units, microwaves and refrigerators.

click to enlarge Where old TVs go to die ... and be reborn. - JOYCE ALEXANDER

Below an east-facing ridge is a small water retention pond, the reeds growing out of it still in the heavy summer air. An adjacent copse of healthy, mature green trees is a stark contrast to the acres of dry beige hillside behind it and the hundreds of acres of the landfill below.

This landfill has been a regular destination for me. Whereas many adult children spend time with a parent over coffee, a walk through the mall or at Sunday dinner, for the last few years my father and I have bonded during semi-regular trips to the dump, pulling a trailer full of old furniture, clothes, branches, kitchen trash and sometimes a dead bird or squirrel.

We've been to the landfill more often than we've been anywhere else together—except maybe our annual family vacation when I was a kid—but neither of us can ever remember what the fee is for the kind of waste we're bringing in. When we pull up to the booth from which a landfill employee judges our load and charges us accordingly, my father, a born salesman, does his jovial best to convince the person inside the booth that we should be charged the lowest rate he thinks he can negotiate. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but on the days it does, we treat it as a lottery win—albeit a small, strange one—and pull away from the booth patting each other on the back as we drive up the winding hill to the dump proper.

The anticipation builds at about the same time the sickeningly sweet smell of trash hits. We back up the truck to Trash Mountain and prepare for a game that doesn't actually have a name, but could be called "Who Can Throw (Blank) the Farthest?" We pick a spot as high up on the trash mound as we think we can hit and send bottles, books, cardboard boxes and branches flying through the air. If my younger brother is lucky enough to be along for the ride—we consider an invitation to join us on a dump run quite an honor to bestow—my father and I behave somewhat like frat boys, making my brother the target of our game, though he usually ducks in time to avoid a particularly ripe bit of spoiled food or a vermin corpse. He never finds the teasing as gut-bustingly funny as we do, if only because he's often distracted by his own repeated gagging at the miasma and keeping a vigilant eye on the ever-present circling scavengers, convinced we won't get everything unloaded and get back in the truck before he's covered in gull guano.

click to enlarge Ted Hutchinson wastes no time explaining the importanceand easeof recycling. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Ted Hutchinson wastes no time explaining the importanceand easeof recycling.

The idea of giving up these Saturday treks is bittersweet, but give them up I think we must. Most of the items my father and I throw with a loud grunt and as much power as we can muster are recyclables, and this most recent trip for a behind-the-scenes tour of the landfill has made me realize that the satisfying plink of a chili can hitting an old broom handle or the crash of a jelly jar breaking against a twisted, broken lamp is not reward enough to just keep tossing those things away. The amount of waste is too great and the options for recycling too varied and easily available to maintain my old ways.

The big blue dumpster at the entrance to the landfill is there for donations to Second Chance Building Materials (in the Linen District). Each mountain of wood chips contains pieces in varying sizes readied for re-sale. The appliances will be relieved of their fluids, the metal hulls sent to Pacific Recycling where, supervisor Seth Brown explained, they are thrown into a giant shredder and turned into pieces as small as four inches in diameter. The ferrous material (iron, steel and tin) is sent to a steel mill where it's forged into new raw materials such as construction beams for new buildings. The shrink-wrapped TVs and CRTs await shipment to a demanufacturing facility in Utah, and the asphalt is all recycled. Even the small thicket of trees, which could have been cut down to make room for the new landfill being built adjacent to Hidden Hollow, serves a greater purpose: It's home to several families of birds.

A big part of my waste education came from my tour guide, Ted Hutchinson, director of the Ada County Solid Waste Management Department. His offices sit in the building just below the entry road for Hidden Hollow Sanitary Landfill, a location susceptible to the whims of the strong, hot summer breeze blowing across the stinking refuse. Hutchinson, dressed in pressed khakis, a dark green short-sleeved shirt and leather loafers, gave me much the same tour he's given hundreds of grade-school to college students during his 12 years at the landfill. He demonstrated the materials used at the bottom of Hidden Hollow and the new adjacent North Ravine Cell landfill, still under construction. My tour included a lecture on the hazardous materials waste reclamation plan, the waste-to-energy methods currently in place and History of the Landfill 101.

The rules that govern landfills are a result of the environmental movement in the '60s, Hutchinson explained.

"Up to that point, it was a real hodge-podge. All the cities had their own dumps; dumps of convenience," Hutchinson said. "They used to be on fire. The upside to the fires was that it tended to burn up the really bad stuff, but [that] created air pollution."

The new environmentalism led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the first Earth Day in 1970 and a new set of rules for the people responsible for overseeing landfills.

"Those rules [were] very specific: no burning, the landfill has to fill certain criteria to be located in certain areas ... All of those same rules are still in place. The states have the options to create some of their own rules, but they have to be in line with EPA rules," Hutchinson said.

In 1972, Ada County closed down all but one landfill in Kuna (which closed in the early '90s), consolidated everything and opened Hidden Hollow on property owned by the county. For the most part, only Ada County residents are authorized to dump there. Waste from Bogus Basin is one exception. The resort is primarily in Boise County, but 80 to 90 percent of the people throwing stuff away there live in Ada County.

Hutchinson explained that the original landfill has a set perimeter and cannot expand beyond that. Once trash was piled flush with the top of that basin (think giant inverted triangle), they began piling it on top of that, slowly growing a man-made mountain in the Foothills. But trash can only be stacked so high and was reaching a height that would make it impossible to maneuver machinery on it any longer. Solid Waste Management and the County Board of Commissioners knew that by 2010, Hidden Hollow would no longer be able to serve the growing county's needs. In 2003, with input from the public, Solid Waste and the commissioners went through a very lengthy process of devising several options: One, open a new landfill on the existing county-owned property, which covers roughly 2,700 acres. Two, continue the Hidden Hollow Sanitary Landfill but open a new one somewhere else in the county. Three, ship all of Ada County's waste somewhere else in Idaho. Four, ship the waste to a landfill outside of the state. Taking long-term costs and public response into account, the county went with option No. 1 and in 2006, they broke ground on the North Ravine Cell.

In order to create the new cell, thousands of yards of dirt had to be removed and materials laid down to protect the aquifer. Hutchinson pulled out a cardboard box of material samples, modeling the base of the new landfill, which is nearing completion. It is a bowl that spans nearly 300 acres lined first with roughly 600 feet of native soil between the basin and the aquifer. The first layer on top of the soil is a geomat, a mesh-like material loosely filled with bentonite clay. The next is made of an incredibly tough geomembrane liner 60 millimeters thick and cut in 25-foot wide by 100-foot long sheets welded together. The third layer is felt. The next layers include both natural and man-made materials: hundreds of feet of drainage rock, another layer of felt, sand and, finally, 30 feet of "soft" garbage such as fabric waste. Phase one of the NRC project included laying down about 20 acres of material at a cost of roughly $20 million.

Back atop the ridge above the dump, Boise, Eagle and Meridian are visible for as far as the sky's brown haze allows. The Hazardous Waste facility and a handful of guys in orange Sheriff's Inmate Labor Detail vests work below. The top of the south-facing ridge affords views of the Ridge to Rivers Trail System across Seaman's Gulch Road and, closer at hand, the back side of the pungent pyramid of Ada County's refuse.

The rise leading up to the trash is dotted with toilet-sized rounded mounds, each grayish-black and cracked like hardpan. It's the sludge left after a neighboring city gave its sewage system a cleansing enema. A clutch of bright, healthy lemon-yellow sunflowers find nourishment in the offal.

In the areas surrounding the landfill, McMansions dot the once barren land, after a housing boom not anticipated in the 1970s. Inside these houses on the hills live people who are not at all content to spend warm summer evenings sitting on their huge porches breathing in the sweet smells of methane.

Methane is a natural by-product of the thousands of tons of compacted waste, and these nuisance gases have been retooled as well. The gases are flammable and need to be released. But rather than create vast amounts of air pollution, they are drawn into 6-inch perforated pipes that run horizontally through the layers of trash. Below the landfill area, a small flare station owned by G2 Energy out of Georgia converts the landfill's "nuisance" gases into energy which is then sold to Idaho Power. Gas extraction wells push the gas into two narrow silos. From there, the gases run into a giant 20-cylinder caterpillar engine that not only runs on the "dirty gas" but turns that gas into the usable energy.

But none of this is free.

The money that goes into running and maintaining the landfill, discovering new methods of "waste-to-energy" and recycling and continuing work on the NRC comes from taxpayers—but not from property tax dollars. Money comes from fees collected at the entrance gate, and a small portion of county residents' monthly trash bills. Vince Trimboli, community relations supervisor for Boise City Public Works, said city residents pay around $11 per month for trash pickup—$13 if they don't recycle.

Rich Wright, Ada County public information director, said as surprising as it may sound, it's true: None of the money used for construction of the new landfill or maintenance of the existing one comes from tax dollars.

"[The money comes from] what is called an enterprise fund within the county. The Western Idaho Fair is another example of an enterprise fund. All fees collected fund the entire operation; there are no tax dollars allocated to the operations of an enterprise fund department," he said. "All of the construction costs [of the NRC] have been paid for by the users."

A portion of each garbage bill also goes to Allied Waste (which transports anywhere between 1,200 and 1,500 tons of waste per day to the landfill) for both waste collection and its curbside recycling program. Fees collected at the landfill vary according to the kind of waste people bring in and what they're willing to do with it. A truckload of wood waste costs about $2.50 versus $10 for a load of construction waste. Looking at that mountain of existing trash, the expanse of the NRC which will also overflow with trash someday, and realizing the hill that trucks full of more trash chug up and down every day is also made of trash, the idea of recycling takes on a whole new urgency.

Up to this point, I have not been much of a recycler. My Allied Waste-supplied blue recycling bin was in my garage holding extra potting soil. But after my official visit to the dump, I am embarrassed by my own participation in what Hutchinson calls the "magic can" syndrome.

click to enlarge ADAM ROSENLUND

As in, he said, "You put your trash in a can, put it out on the street and 'poof' it's gone. [But] that trash has to go somewhere."

With a small swell of pride last week, I walked my bin out to the curb, the plastic milk jugs, take-out containers and soup cans rattling around in their paper bags.

For the first time I realized that the hill my father and I had traversed so many times was not the rim of some ancient lake basin. The S-curves that wind steeply upward were formed atop hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste.

My dad and I will continue some kind of Saturday tradition, but maybe one that's a bit more traditional. He's a great golfer and I'd like to learn, so maybe we'll hit the driving range. I'm sure my brother will be relieved ... until we start making him fetch the balls.

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