Self-Care Challenge (Day 114): Understanding My Impact

Cedar Hills Landfill ModelGoing to the dump wasn’t exactly how I imagined spending my Saturday morning.

But it’s something I’ve wanted to do for almost four years now. The truth is, I really wanted to know more about what happens to my trash after I throw it “away.” You and I both know it doesn’t really go goes somewhere.

To me, visiting the site was an exercise in self-care. Getting to know my environment–and the impact I am having on it–is important to me. 

This year, the 920-acre Cedar Hills Regional Landfill, which is just 5 miles from my home, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. To commemorate this event they invited the community to tour the site. This was my chance! 

After passing three gatekeepers wearing bright orange vests, I parked my car and opened the door to join several other visitors–lots of families with small children. As I walked toward the large tent at the opposite end of the parking lot, I also noticed the sky was full of large birds circling overhead.

Soon, a few key leaders shared some operational facts about the site, and then I joined about fifty others who boarded three large buses for the tour. There’s no other way to put it–the place is enormous.

Just how much trash are we talking about? Last year alone, the landfill received 869,802 tons of garbage–roughly 70,000 yellow school buses worth. And what are some of the strangest things they’ve received? Try 14,000 pounds of individually wrapped salami and 68 cow heads. Weird.

The landfill itself is assembled in layers, sort of like a cake, and our tour guide explained that the mass settles about 2 to 3 feet each year. Leachates from each of the areas are collected and analyzed by engineers on a monthly basis. This is to test for contaminants, as well as to assess the general health of the site. Several times the landfill was referred to as a “living organism.” 

Surprisingly, the landfill actually generates energy. Many years ago, the natural gases produced by the mass (roughly 54% of which is methane) were burned off with flares. Now, it’s captured and sold to Bio Energy Washington to help offset expenses. Each year it generates about 15 million kilowatt hours of electricity. 

5 Bald EaglesAnd I certainly didn’t expect to see so many Bald Eagles!

It’s not uncommon to see them in Washington State, but never in my life have I seen so many congregated at a single location. One employee of the landfill said that he has seen as many as 80. Evidently, they are rather fond of dumpster diving. 

As you might expect, picking through trash might not always be a good thing for these protected animals. One visitor who lives nearby voiced concerns about Bald Eagles sometimes dropping diapers or feminine napkins in her yard. 

Bald EaglesEqually off-putting is the fact that 70% of the 2,400 tons of trash that come in every day should NOT be there in the first place. The majority of what arrives should have been composted or recycled instead. But things are getting better. As our community learns how to better manage waste, our trash eventually makes its way to the right place.

The best part of the experience was seeing that people do genuinely care. Residents sacrificed a portion of their sacred weekend to come to the event. Likewise, landfill workers and elected officials also took time to be there. Even a retiree who worked at the landfill the year it opened in 1965 was in attendance. There was a genuine sense of pride.

At one point, Pat D. McLaughlin, Division Director for King County’s Solid Waste Division, admitted “it’s never good enough,” illustrating their commitment to continued innovation.

The landfill is expected to be at capacity by 2040. But, then again, it was supposed to have already been at capacity several years ago. What has extended its life? Us. Each and every one of us who is doing our part to reduce the amount of packaging we buy and to sort the waste we generate, ensures that it goes to the right place. We are making a difference.

We, not just those who work at the landfill, have the amazing opportunity to make an ever bigger difference–by reducing the amount of trash we generate to begin with.

Surely we can do better than 70,000 yellow school buses.


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