Sometime down the road, local officials will sign off on another expansion at the Advanced Disposal Seven Mile Creek Landfill.
They really have no choice. The landfill is in the city of Eau Claire but surrounded by Eau Claire County and the town of Seymour. It takes in about 1,660 tons of garbage a day from as far away as the Twin Cities and will run out of space in 2021, according to an article in the Dec. 12 Leader-Telegram.
None of us will be here to see it, but I predict that future generations will look back at the mountains of garbage we bestowed on them and wonder what in the world we were thinking. Then again, if in the meantime Earth gets hit by a giant asteroid or rained on by the “Yellowstone Supervolcano,” mountains of garbage will be the least of anyone’s worries. I think I should quit watching the National Geographic channel.
But I digress. I’m no scientist or environmental engineer, but I can’t help but think that advances in incineration might reduce the need to bury all of our non-recyclables, with minimal impact on air quality.
We don’t need to look far for an example. The Xcel Energy waste-to-energy plant on French Island in La Crosse generates enough electricity annually to power about 10,000 homes. Also, during my infrequent visits to La Crosse, I don’t remember being overcome by smog or incinerator ash.
“Our landfill has lasted twice as long as it would have without waste-to-energy,” then-La Crosse County Solid Waste Director Hank Koch said in a 2017 interview with the La Crosse Tribune.
I understand why we simply keep growing our area landfill, otherwise known as “Mount Eau Claire.” It’s less expensive (short term, at least), politically convenient and, some would argue, better for the environment than incineration. Florida-based Advanced Disposal’s latest proposal is to make its landfill 60 feet higher and add another 35 acres of dumping space.
Several things bother me about our wholesale burying of garbage. First, the courts have declared garbage a product, subject to interstate commerce laws. That is, Advanced Disposal can fill its landfill with garbage from far and wide, and there’s nothing local citizens can do about it. As far as our judicial system is concerned, trucking in garbage to the Advanced Disposal landfill from St. Paul is no different than a lumber supplier making a delivery to Menards.
As a result, the local landfill buries garbage from at least nine other area counties and Minnesota, including the Twin Cities metro area.
The rationale for this is that it’s expensive and controversial to build new landfills – who willingly wants one near their home? – so it’s better to have fewer, larger landfills, and the Advanced Disposal site definitely is large.
Landfills are designed to mitigate environmental damage. They include clay liners, plastic liners, leachate collection systems to drain and properly dispose of liquids, and methane gas venting systems. They are a far cry from the rat-infested “town dumps” from days of yore, where folks used to get rid of old appliances and whatever else at the edge of their communities.
I’m sure a modern incinerator would be very costly with a long payback period, but when I think about my own garbage, I can’t believe much of it couldn’t be burned safely.
Knowing what we do about the size of the local landfill and how we have become the dumping ground for the region and beyond, my wife and I recycle as much as we can. And by the time we separate out all of the paper, aluminum, metal, glass, cardboard and plastic (including bags), there’s not much left for the garbage can. It consists mostly of table scraps, napkins, tissue, coffee grounds, polystyrene, plus cardboard containers that hold pizza and cold beverages that can’t be recycled. It seems silly to entomb those paper products rather than incinerate them.
I also think it’s such a waste when I go to a fast-food restaurant and see all of the paper bags, cups, napkins and food holders that go straight into the garbage, and I assume, the landfill. Multiply all that paper by all the fast-food places between here and Minneapolis, and that’s a lot of paper that would burn nicely.
I’ve read that it’s getting harder to find markets for some recyclables, and hopefully those items won’t end up in landfills. That, I imagine, will be an ongoing challenge. I hate to think that I’m rinsing and separating stuff that will end up in the landfill anyway.
Local elected officials won’t be able to adequately research alternatives before they have to vote on the pending landfill expansion. And maybe burying 12-pack soda containers and napkins is the wisest of all the imperfect choices we have for our solid waste. But I’d like to see some public forums on the issue with experts from the various entities making their respective cases, so we can be as informed as possible on this important issue looking further into the future.
In the meantime, one thing most of us can agree on is to do all we can to reduce our contribution to “Mount Eau Claire,” and expect those from other locales adding to its ever-rising elevation to do the same.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.