As the bulldozers bury garbage on a windswept hill overlooking the Missoula Valley, a convoy of semis with long-box trailers arrives with new loads. The parade runs an endless cycle of dump and bury, and the hill slowly grows into a mountain of buried trash.
At the current rate of disposal – and barring a marked change in consumer habits – the sprawling landfill above the city will fill sometime around the year 2080. At that point, the grandchildren of today’s preschoolers will be saddled with a costly and difficult decision – what to do with their rubbish.
“Right now, we’re projected at 62 years based off our annual aerial flyover,” said Jake Paetsch, the environmental manager for Republic Services in Montana and Idaho. “We fly that every year in early spring, and we project our site life based off that model.”
Down in the valley, restaurants still pack takeout meals in Styrofoam boxes and supermarkets still double up on plastic bags, even when it’s not necessary. Lumber and nails that could be recycled add to the waste stream, along with table scraps, yard clippings and plastics.
If it’s sold in the valley, chances are good that it’s buried up here.
“One of my biggest problems here at the landfill is litter, and it’s those plastic bags you get at the store,” said James Keeney, the operations manager for the landfill. “It’s a like a balloon blowing across the sky. The higher we go, the more wind we get. It’s probably the biggest challenge we have.”
In 2016, the Missoula City Council placed its support behind a Zero Waste Plan to study the city’s current rate of disposal, and to recommend short- and long-term goals to reduce the number of items that end up in the waste stream.
In an average year, more than 210,000 tons of material goes to the Missoula landfill, representing a waste of valuable resources, not to mention what all that buried garbage emits in greenhouse gases. And while Republic Services is in the business of taking care of garbage, not lobbying for government action, it does support a number of potential solutions.
“Recycling is picking up and diverting some of the waste from the landfill, but there’s still a lot of opportunity to divert more,” said Glenda Bradshaw, general manager for hauling. “It’s all the metal, cardboard, newspapers, plastic and other things that really should be diverted. We can solve a large part of the waste stream today, and those are things I ask people to focus on.”
Sitting around a coffee table at the landfill this week, Republic employees pondered the future. What if Missoula followed the likes of San Francisco, Portland and coastal North Carolina and banned plastic bags? What if trash collection – and with it, all-in-one recycling – was no longer and option but a requirement?
And what if the city, the county and other community partners, including Republic, established a “waste-stream alley” to sort anything recyclable from a load of garbage before it ever reached the landfill?
“It’s going to be a process and take a while to solve it,” said Bradshaw. “But we’re midway though those conversations, and I think decisions are going to be made that are going to help eliminate some of the issues with things that could be diverted from the landfill.”
According to the city, Montana’s current recycling rate of 22 percent is well below the national average of 35 percent. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Missoula’s recycling rate sits below the state average.
That’s more than a black eye for a community that prides itself on environmental values and finding progressive solutions to today’s challenges. As much as 50 percent of what ends up in the Missoula landfill could be recycled, though only 4,000 of Republic’s 18,000 garbage customers subscribe to the recycling program.
The recycling efforts may be even less among non-garbage customers.
“One of the biggest challenges in a subscriber-only community is, you’ll often never achieve anything greater than 30 percent,” said Bradshaw. “That’s a conversation that needs to take place at the city level – how do we move beyond 30 percent? If we really do want to achieve Zero by 50, we’re going to have make some community decisions about how we want to recycle.”
Republic estimates that glass constitutes less than 5 percent of what ends up in the landfill. In Montana, there is no market for glass recycling, though a “responsible glass tax” is something that could be considered.
However, “green waste” represents 30 percent of the waste stream, and it can be recycled. That includes yard trimmings, untreated wood waste and food scraps, including coffee and tea bags. Reducing that, along with plastics and metals, could have an immediate impact on the waste stream.
Other items, such as plastics, face a bigger challenge. China – long the world’s dumping ground for all things plastic – has cracked down on the import of plastic trash. That served as a signal for wealthy nations, excluding the U.S., to increase recycling and cut down on non-essential products, like plastic straws.
Some companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestle and Danon, are taking steps to increase plastic recycling, or shift to biodegradable packaging. Even Kenya has banned plastic bags.
For now, Republic still accepts plastic in its recycling program, though its future may be doubt.
“ A year ago, someone would have paid me for that commodity, but right now I’m paying them,” said Bradshaw. “That’s not a sustainable, long-term business model, but it is part of our overall commitment to the environment. We’re watching it.”
Despite the challenges and some obvious and immediate solutions, Keeney has seen progress. While much of what ends up in the landfill could be recycled, it’s still less than what it was 15 years ago.
That, in a small way, shows progress, though it’s less than ideal.
“Back in the day when a truck would dump, you could hear it dumping with all the stuff falling out,” Keeney said. “You could hear the glass, the cans tinging. Now, you just don’t hear that waste stream coming out of the trucks. It’s one of the things you pick up on.”