How Central Ohioans get rid of all that stuff

Up close, an active landfill resembles an archaeological dig in reverse. Piles of garbage are compressed, covered in soil and sowed with grass until they become manmade hills. What will future generations discover in these mounds? They'll find bottles and jugs and jars. They'll find pizza boxes and Amazon boxes, clothes, shoes and toys. There will be loads to dig through—more than 1 million tons a year in Franklin County alone.

From 2013–2016, the amount of material waste generated by Central Ohioans grew by 17.1 percent. Ty Marsh—the executive director of the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, the public agency that owns and operates Franklin County's landfill—hypothesizes that the overall growth is due to population increase, while corresponding per capita growth is thanks to the ever-improving economy. “People have more money,” Marsh says. “They're spending, buying more, and so therefore they're throwing more stuff away.”

The landfill is the canary in the economic coal mine, he continues. During the 2008 recession, the incoming tonnage decreased so much that SWACO had to increase its tipping fees—the amount the landfill charges to accept each ton—because agency leaders were worried about meeting obligations on the landfill's $100 million debt. When the economy recovered, the tonnage followed suit.

While Central Ohio has generated more waste recently, the amount going into the landfill hasn't increased as drastically—9.6 percent since 2013—because more has been diverted through recycling, composting and reuse. In 2016, the diversion rate was 47 percent, compared to 39 percent in 2014; SWACO aims to hit 50 percent by 2020. “We are not here to fill the landfill,” Marsh asserts.

He also hopes to reap financial benefit from the existing waste stream. A partnership between SWACO and Aria Energy allows the company to refine methane gas generated by the landfill and sell it to utilities in California. Marsh says the partnership nets SWACO $3 million per year. In a recent study, the two largest segments of waste going into the landfill were both recyclable materials: plastic and fiber (paper and cardboard). A consultant for SWACO estimated that if all materials like those had been recycled, they'd have a potential value of $41 million. In total, 70 percent of the waste could have been diverted.

The citywide recycling program, RecyColumbus, has diverted between 32,000 and 34,000 tons from the landfill each year from 2013–2016. Eighty percent of what's recycled here stays within 150 miles of Columbus, says Jeff Ortega, assistant director for the Columbus Department of Public Service. Rumpke, the city's Cincinnati-based recycling contractor, sends bales of compacted materials to local companies, like Anheuser-Busch, I.H. Schlezinger and WestRock, to become new products.

As recycling participation has grown, programs nationwide have struggled with efficiency because residents often put items in their recycling bins that are not recyclable. “In the industry, we call this ‘wish-cycling,'” says Hanna Greer-Brown, SWACO's communications manager. “It actually leads to greater contamination and cost of recycling, and so we're trying to discourage that.”

Plastic bags are the No. 1 culprit because they can jam the machinery, says Jonathan Kissell, Rumpke's communications manager. He also points to problems caused by other unrecyclable “tanglers,” such as hoses, extension cords and Christmas lights, and cautions against recycling batteries, especially the lithium-ion variety, which were linked to 12 fires at Rumpke's Columbus and Cincinnati facilities in 2017.

“Residents in the city of Columbus and the surrounding communities participate very well in recycling,” Kissell says, “but we're always cautious of the items that get sent to us.”

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