The world of solid waste is getting both smaller and larger: There are fewer landfills today than 30 years ago, but individual landfills are getting bigger. In the early 1970s, about 20,000 landfills operated coast to coast, compared to a little more than 1700 today—most of which are publicly owned and operated. Photo: BOMAG
Because landfill space is at a premium, the publicly run Bees Ferry Landfill in Charleston County, S.C., uses specialized equipment to mash the refuse down. Photo: BOMAG

While farming out services like water treatment has become nearly as common as a new Starbucks, landfills are one area in which public ownership still dominates. According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association, two thirds of municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills remain in the hands of municipal, regional, and state agencies.

One reason: Municipal solid waste departments are joining together, finding that there's strength in numbers.

For example, the Scholl Canyon Landfill—situated just north of the 134 Freeway in Glendale, Calif.—is operated by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts (LACSD). Several cities contribute to the 1500 tons of refuse it accepts every day: Glendale, La Canada, Flintridge, Pasadena, San Marino, Sierra Madre, and a number of unincorporated communities. It is one of three landfills the LACSD runs, and neither the district nor its member municipalities have any plans to go private.

Of the cities that do have their waste hauled to a private landfill, most opt for total privatization of their solid waste operation, not just disposal in landfills. The city of Palos Hills, Ill., for example, contracts with Houston-based Waste Management Inc. to handle recycling, collect waste, and haul it away to one of the 302 landfill disposal sites the company operates nationwide.

Turning to a privately owned landfill has its pluses. Depending on the size of your agency, it can save on payroll, operation expenses, equipment costs, and eliminate environmental-regulation headaches.

But keeping solid-waste disposal in-house gives cities the freedom to try new technologies—and even bring in some revenue.

For 20 years, Columbia, Mo.'s public works department has operated a landfill that's the final resting place for the waste the department's refuse vehicles collect from residents, and from commercial customers with food waste. (Businesses can turn to the city for collection of their non-food waste if they choose—for a fee). The landfill also accepts waste from private haulers from the eight-county Mid-Missouri Solid Waste District, which collects waste from surrounding communities.

The department is starting work on a bioreactor cell at the landfill. The goal of the bioreactor cell—set to be completed by mid-2007—is to study the technology as a way to accelerate biostabilization of waste into a harmless, inert substance with less impact on the environment. Another goal is to step up production of methane, with the possibility of using the gas as a renewable energy source.

According to Keith Howard, deputy director of Lee County, Fla.'s Solid Waste Division, a perception exists that publicly run landfills—and all other government entities, for that matter—are caught up in bureaucratic red tape and don't operate as efficiently as they would if run by a profit-motivated corporation.

This view, Howard says, is faulty.

“Many public facilities are run as an enterprise utility, operating with stand-alone funds and a bottom line, so they tend to behave more like businesses,” he says. “The bureaucracy is there, but it's countered by better planning for future needs and expenses. When rates are consistent—government cannot favor one customer over another—operating revenues and demand can be fairly stable.”

In other words, the idea of a well-run public facility—especially when it comes to landfills—is not rubbish.