A Heap of Savings
How One Landfill Is Finding Hidden Efficiencies and Alternative Revenue Sources
Environmental Services landfill in rural Pennsylvania, just off the interstate heading south toward the center of the state, might seem like it’s nothing but a dumping grounds for trash—but don’t be fooled. Through clever efficiencies aimed at capturing and repurposing waste, the landfill is able to generate revenue and savings upwards of $1.5 million a year while saving big on utility costs.
Architect David Leung began managing the landfill from its opening twenty years ago, building it from the ground up. Despite having no previous experience in waste management, Leung, who has designed buildings around Pennsylvania for forty years—including as project architect for the 2007 complete remodel of a 890-acre, 200-room resort and casino in Mount Pocono, PA—jumped right in and learned the business.
By speaking with consultants, visiting other sites, and using the organizational and logistics skills he acquired over the years, he has overseen the creation, and now the expansion, of a very profitable dumping site. “We keep a very lean profile; most of our guys are multi-taskers,” says Leung. “They can do anything we ask them to do.” His skilled and dedicated employees are an essential part of what makes the landfill so successful. As we tour the site in his Jeep, he points out a man who once spent an entire Friday evening working overtime, making sure the plastic tarps used for protecting the dump from excessive rainfall didn’t blow away in a storm.
One of the gravest concerns for landfills—and the environments in which they’re situated—is leachate, the liquid runoff created by decomposing trash and rainwater. The current landfill area, which has nearly filled its acreage, holds six million tons of trash, which produces anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 gallons of leachate per day, depending on weather and precipitation. When the landfill opened, that water was sent to the municipal waste treatment center. However, because the leachate is so polluted, and the volume is so massive, it nearly broke the treatment center—twice.
Instead of continuing to pay to fix the system, management decided to build their own reverse osmosis water-processing plant on site. Now their combined four-million-gallon holding capacity keeps them self-sustaining, meeting all their water needs in-house, from toilets and sinks to landscaping to tamping down dust and cleaning their facilities.
Another method for containing costs and actually generating revenue is through methane recapture. When organic material decomposes, it naturally produces methane, a gas that is many times more potent than CO2, with the potential for disastrous environmental effects. ES has installed an on-site processing facility, and they’ve entered into a deal with UGI, a local utility company that burns the methane and converts it to electricity. In addition, a local potato-processing plant also purchases the processed methane from the landfill. This generates around $125,000 a month—potential money they’d literally be burning anyway—and is a boon for the environment, as well. ES runs one of the largest gas recovery systems in the state.
Now that the landfill has reached capacity on their current dump site, they’re in the midst of a large expansion which will double their permitted usage area. This, of course, means a massive digging project. Central Pennsylvania sits atop one of the world’s richest deposits of anthracite coal, and one can see the veins of shimmering black gold in the newly dug pit. The coal is separated and then sold locally, which is yet another small but steady income stream. In fact, the landfill repurposes nearly everything, from stones to dirt. Even rocks are sent to a crusher or smashed with a hydro hammer and cut to various sizes, then used for building roads, creating infill and landscaping.
Sewer sludge is combined with organic material to create an incredibly rich compost. When sections of the landfill reach capacity, they need to be capped—covered with a thick plastic liner, then topped-off with dirt. Because the compost is such high quality, they don’t even need to seed it; they spread a layer of it over the cap, and within a year it will be covered with lush grasses.
“I took some home to get my flowers growing,” Leung tells me as we drive around the site. “Nothing,” he says, “gets wasted here.” Then he adds, “When people put their garbage out on the curbside, that’s the last they think about it. That’s when we start.”
“When people put their garbage out on the curbside, that’s the last they think about it. That’s when we start.”
Oddly enough, the landfill is home to a diverse range of wildlife. When the federal government built the adjacent highway, they created a wetland to compensate for the loss of land. With the recent expansion of the landfill, some of that habitat was destroyed. But ES has replaced it at a ratio of 2:1, creating a total wetlands area of 13 acres. Of course, nothing can ever make a landfill completely “clean” or “waste-free”—this business is trash, after all. But by building efficiencies into the operating systems and bringing creativity and resourcefulness to the facility management, ES has succeeded in getting the most out of their garbage.