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

On day 114 of my 366-day self-care challenge, I allocated time to understanding my impact. (Going 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.”

And you and I both know it doesn’t really go away…it goes somewhere.

To me, visiting the landfill was an exercise in self-care. Getting to know my environment – and the impact I’m having on it – is important to me. 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. It was finally 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. I never would have guessed what they turned out to be.

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 landfill is embarrassingly enormous.

Just how much trash are we talking about here? 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 lasagna, 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 landfill, which is technically a living organism.

Surprisingly, the massive garbage pile generates energy. Several 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, and each year it generates about 15 million kilowatt hours of electricity.

But even more surprising was the number of Bald Eagles overhead!

It’s not uncommon to see Bald Eagles 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 gathered there. Evidently, they’re fond of dumpster diving.

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

Equally off-putting is the fact that 70% of the 2,400 tons of trash that comes in every day shouldn’t even be there in the first place. The majority of what arrives is more suitable for composting or recycling. But things are getting better. As we learn how to better manage our waste, it 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 had been an employee the first year the landfill 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 been at capacity several years ago. What has extended its life? We have. Each and every one of us who is doing our part to reduce the amount of packaging we buy, sort the waste we generate, and ensure it goes into the correct garbage bins, ensures that it goes to the right place. We are making a difference.

We, not just those who work at the landfillhave the amazing opportunity to make an even bigger difference – in part, by reducing the amount of trash we generate in the first place.

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

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