Editor's note: Our October 2010 “20 questions about sustainability” editorial generated a lot of feedback. But nothing was as spirited as these comments from the manager of a rural Colorado landfill that serves 2,020 acres.

I'd like to comment on your fear that “the first commandment of capitalism — make a profit — will keep the industry from growing like it could.” If we didn't have capitalism, the market for post-consumer goods wouldn't exist. A small rural operation like ours, hundreds of miles from buyers of recyclable waste, would have to abandon its goal to not be subsidized and dig deeper into taxpayers' pockets to survive.

During the recession, folks have cut back on expendable purchasing and disposable commodities. You'd think they'd recycle more in order to decrease disposal costs, but recyclable items are often the items they're not buying. To pay our way like a private business, we have to make tough choices.

Our landfill receives fewer than 100 tons of waste per day. Although our recycling program is in its infancy, our goal has always been sustainability. We strive to maintain an excellent facility that has a low impact on neighbors and benefits both the local economy and environment by minimizing long-distance hauls.

We believe in pay as you throw. For more than a decade, we've hammered home the message that handling solid waste isn't free and that the true costs of recycling should be transparent. If someone throws out a lot, they should pay more than those who don't. The state requires commercial, industrial, and institutional waste generators to recycle electronics, so we host biannual events for these customers and invite residents to participate — for a fee. We offer discounts to customers who separate tree and yard waste from the rest of their trash, which we then chip and sell, unscreened, as mulch.

We divert only profitable commodities; i.e., those that will help offset operating costs. Fiber markets are 350 to 450 miles away but pay enough to cover costs and a little more. Glass buyers are 400 miles away and the market's glutted, so we're exploring ways to encourage local value-added marketing for this commodity. Plastics markets are 500 miles away and don't pay enough to cover collection and shipping. We will not bow to pressure to recycle all those plastic bottles but continue to educate folks to reuse them or, better yet, drink local water instead.

We try to invest wisely in equipment to manage nonrecyclable waste.

In 1996, for example, we spent about $750,000 on a Harris 918 two-stroke baler that does double-duty as trash compactor and material preparer. By compacting about 70% of nonrecyclables into standard-sized bales for landfill burial, we build a solid base for building up the trash like a pyramid, use less soil as cover, eliminate the need for buying and maintaining a wheeled compactor, minimize wind-blown litter, and compact more consistently. The equipment also produces market-sized bales of cardboard and paper for transport to mills via direct sale or brokers.

Sending these commodities offsite for recycling saves “airspace,” which means we can make our landfill last longer. A few yards of airspace here and there will eventually add up to years added to landfill life, which means the county can hold off on building a new disposal cell at $100,000 (or more) per acre. We've extended our facility's life expectancy from 200 to 250 years.

In the meantime, we'll continue to patch up older equipment and make due as long as it's economical and practical. We often buy used instead of new for large equipment like our Caterpillar D8T dozer.

To meet the increased financial demands related to solid waste, air- and stormwater quality regulations, human resources, labor relations, and higher fees as the state tries to balance its budget, we cut operating costs where we can, delay purchases, and do more in-house rather than contracting out. We're not yet looking at furlough days or reducing staff because the workload is still there to cover payroll.

So all I can say is, thank goodness for capitalism.

— Deborah Barton (baleit@fone.net) manages the 360-acre Montezuma County Landfill in Colorado, where 40 acres are designated for current operations. Six full-time and two part-time employees serve roughly 26,000 residents spread over 2,020 square miles in the unique Four Corners area of the nation, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet.


Free education credits for municipal solid waste managers.

Each session of U.S. EPA's Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Web Academy (formerly the Resource Conservation Challenge, or RCC) qualifies for two continuing education units from the Solid Waste Association of North America.

Speakers take questions from attendees after each presentation. If you can't attend a session (1 – 2:30 pm Eastern time on the third Thursday of the month), visit here for videos, transcripts, and Power Point presentations dating back to 2009.

If, like the author of this column, you work in a rural setting, we recommend 2010's “Rural Recycling: Bridging the Gaps” by English Bird, consultant and executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition.

Upcoming webinars include:

May 24 How to Negotiate Your Contract with Waste Haulers
July 19 Green Purchasing: Tools for Federal, State, and Local Governments
Aug. 16 SMART Packaging
Sept. 20 Energy and Sustainable Materials Management
Oct. 18 EPA's Plug In to eCycling SMM Challenge

For more information, call Janice Johnson at (703) 308-7280.