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Yarn Registry BLOG: A Landfill is an Ecosystem Unto Itself, part I

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A Treastise on the Organisms that Call Landfills Home

Part 1 of a series investigating the many layers of life in the average landfill. This week’s entry introduces the series and explains how a landfill works. Next week: microorganisms!

Looming over Colerain Township is Mount Rumpke, the highest point in Hamilton County, Ohio. Visitors are taken by bus to the top, and from the summit, you can see the valley below, stretching to the reaches of the mountain’s domain. The skyline of nearby Cincinnati sits hazily in the distance. Far below, bulldozers and dump trucks, the size of ants, can be seen developing more mountains just like it. Mount Rumpke, with its sweeping valley and majestic panoramas, is a mountain made of garbage.

Mount Rumpke represents approximately fifteen years’ worth of trash, a mix of municipal solid waste and construction debris collected from most jurisdictions within 60 miles of Cincinnati. The Rumpke Company operates the premier garbage collection network in southwestern Ohio. Mount Rumpke sits on the company’s 1000-acre property, the accumulated garbage rising 1,064 feet above sea level, ten feet shy of its legal limit. Much of the verdant valley is actually garbage, piled hundreds of feet deep but covered over with dirt, grass, and shrubs. The landfill, like most in the USA, is licensed by the EPA, who says it can take in up to 10,000 tons of garbage per day. The Rumpke landfill is the sixth largest in the country.

That much garbage in one place makes for a landscape unique in its composition. The concentration of man-made goods, harsh chemicals, and organic waste all rotting together makes for an environment that doesn’t — and can’t — exist anywhere in the natural world. It is alien in its harshness, and yet the landfill is teeming with life. A landfill provides abundant food and shelter that gives rise to its own ecology. Landfills, while ostensibly inhospitable, have become a biological niche, a biome based around humanity’s waste.

The guts of the average landfill are actively decomposing thanks to tens of thousands of kinds of bacteria and fungi. The spread of bacteria is facilitated in part by insects like cockroaches and ants. Mice, voles, and other small mammals pick from the trash and nest in the landfill’s periphery, while raccoons, coyotes, and dogs — even baboons and bears in areas with such creatures — scavenge the top. Crows, starlings, and gulls flock to landfill en masse, and are in turn sometimes scavenged by fiercer birds of prey. For many creatures, the landfill is the beginning, middle, and end of life, the stage on which they act out the primordial directive to eat and reproduce.

An organism’s ability to survive and even flourish in such conditions demonstrates the remarkable dexterity of the natural world. But how do animals survive in a landfill? Are there benefits to making a home there? How does the nutritional value of items in the landfill compare with more traditional food sources? What about the poisonous effluent that flows through the trash — have organisms developed a tolerance? This article takes a look at these questions, throwing the author (willingly) into the depths of a landfill to roam around the filth with its fascinating, industrious layers of life. The kingdom of garbage is an impressive one, an interdependent biologically functioning unit. In other words, a landfill is an ecosystem unto itself.

The putrescible groundwork for life — how a landfill works

Molly Broadwater, senior corporate communications coordinator at the Rumpke landfill, said the term ‘dump’ is pejorative. A dump implies a pit or a field where residents simply throw their waste, like those old-time trash piles way out in the country. Dumps typically don’t include any of the regulations or forethought that goes into the creation of the modern landfill, which is an engineering marvel. Landfills, also called tips and middens, don’t just hold trash but all the facilities needed to manage it. The Rumpke facility, for example, has a gas refinery to harvest the methane that builds up as garbage decomposes, a drainage system that funnels leachate — aka garbage juice — to a wastewater treatment plant, and space dedicated to the company’s trucks, including a garage, a workshop, and an area to wash off their tires so they don’t track waste from the landfill to the rest of the world.

Owing to the sheer amount of garbage delivered every day, a landfill has to think years in advance about where to store the unimaginable accumulation. When I visited the Rumpke landfill in April, the earthmovers seen from atop the mountain were preparing the next area on the property scheduled accept garbage. The site starts as a 13-acre, 200-foot deep pit, which isn’t expected to be full for eleven years. At the bottom is three feet of impermeable clay that acts as a natural barrier against leaks. The clay is followed by a plastic liner and then a geotextile cushion liner, which prevents the plastic liner from being torn or punctured by the layer of rock that comes next.

Trash dumping can start once these layers are in place. Garbage is trucked in and dumped in the assigned spot. Rumpke has a fleet of 400 of its own vehicles, some of whose routes include 400 stops. The trucks can hold 14 tons of garbage, or that of around 800 homes. Dozens of other trucks, private and commercial, visit the site daily. Waste haulers, construction crews, and homeowners pay by the pound to dump at the site. Big machines and bulldozers roam the piles, crushing down the trash with spiked metal tires. One of these machines can weigh up to 50 tons, and has the power to compact 1400 pounds of garbage into one cubic yard of space.

Trucks don’t dump wherever they feel like it. Trucks are directed to the “working face,” or the area where garbage is currently being dumped. Governmental regulations require that the working face be compacted and covered with a layer of dirt, partly to reduce odor and blowing trash, and partly to limit the amount of animals drawn to it. The layer or soil is around six inches deep, and is typically applied within 24 to 48 hours after the garbage is dumped. (Immediate soil coverage is often prescribed for food and plant waste.) As a result, there is more dirt but less visible garbage than one might expect in the landfill. A lot of the Rumpke facility looks simply an immense field of dirt, with patches of garbage here and there hinting at what’s below. But there are also the classic rolling hills of refuse: those surreal, grotesque piles that are repellent and fascinating in equal measure. Animals inhabit the calmer areas of the landfill while scavenging the garbage open to the world, taking advantage of the area’s bounty and the social opportunities afforded by the strange environment.

When a dumping area reaches capacity, layers of impermeable plastic are laid on top to seal it, sometimes including an odor control blanket, which uses odor-eating technology found in tennis shoes and trash bags. Broadwater, pointing out a five-acre expanse covered with such a blanket, said that a landfill is ideally a self-contained, leak-proof facility that should stay that way for decades. The leak-proof facility is then covered with a layer of rocks to prevent animals from burrowing, especially in the gas reclamation sites, which could introduce air and disrupt the process. Next comes a few feet of soil seeded with grass and other vegetation. (No trees are present, however, as mandated by state law. A toppled tree could rupture the top liner.) A finished, capped landfill looks at first glance like a park. The whole idea is that a landfill be “invisible at the property line,” disguising the garbage and minimizing its odor by burying it, and by employing a property-wide network of misters that vape out a vegetable-based perfume. And voila! The makings of the average landfill.

(The article that follows uses these kinds of tightly-regulated landfills as the basis for the landfills discussed herein. Many areas do not have infrastructure in place to construct landfills of this magnitude and relative self-containment. The unregulated landfills that exist elsewhere in the world (and which would certainly meet Broadwater’s definition of a dump) are vastly more open and dangerous, to organisms both inside and out. Here you have a true sea of garbage. More animals would likely be drawn to these sites due to their openness, and so the populations and distribution would be a little different than what is described below. However, the basic processes of bacterial decomposition and foraging behaviors, for example, are similar enough to paint a general picture of the relationships between organisms in a landfill.)

The Rumpke family has called the Colerain Township landfill home since 1946, as has the extended family of countless organisms that likewise reside there. Just as old William F. Rumpke seized an opportunity to collect garbage where nobody yet had a monopoly[1], the creatures in a landfill are able to exploit its resources for their own livelihood. A society has been established in the landfill in deference to the natural order, and to the natural course of life.

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[1] The Rumpke landfill started as junkyard and coal delivery business sometime in the 1930s. A customer traded founder William F. Rumpke six pigs for his services, and he refurbished an old truck to bring garbage back to feed the pigs. Rumpke established a facility to take in metal during World War II. People would bring their trash to his property, where it would be dropped on a conveyor belt and sorted by hand. Metal and rags were set aside for the war effort, while the rest remained trash. In the 1950s, the government passed a law mandating that food waste be cooked before it was fed to animals. Finding this too inefficient, Rumpke, who by this time was joined in business by his brother, sold his animals and concentrated on trash. The business grew and grew, and in the 1980s, the company consolidated area trash services by buying over 200 businesses and established outposts of their trash empire all across Ohio and surrounding states. In 1986, Rumpke started harvesting methane gas from its landfills (one of the first such operations in the country), and in 1987, Rumpke purchased a portable toilet business. Rumpke also runs a massive recycling facility (which truly has to be seen – and heard – to be believed) and other related businesses. Rumpke currently employs almost 2500 people, 75 of which are Rumpke family members.

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Yarn Registry BLOG: A Landfill is an Ecosystem Unto Itself, part I

by Dylan Taylor-Lehman