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Where All of the Franklin County Trash Ends Up…

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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Eight years ago, local artists, musicians and other creatives proposed a “Columbus Needs a Mountain” movement that suggested the idea of constructing a man-made mountain to give our flat region a bit of a geographical facelift. That effort didn’t gain a whole lot of traction, but we are still getting that mountain nonetheless. The new Columbus mountain is located 15 minutes south of Downtown, just off of State Route 665. Currently around 85 feet tall, the SWACO landfill will top out at 140 feet, making it the single highest point in all of Franklin County.

We recently toured both the facilities with John Remy, Director of Communications at the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, to learn more.

In 2009 alone, SWACO saw a total of 816,000 tons (over 1.6 billion pounds) of trash dumped into the landfill. While the sheer volume may sound astonishing, more troublesome to John Remy is the amount that could be recycled. “The majority of what comes into the landfill is recyclable,” he explained. “Paper and cardboard make up roughly 40% of what comes in. Obviously, there’s a message that needs to get out there.”

The majority of the trash coming into the landfill comes from businesses and commercial accounts within Franklin County. “They’re throwing away the most trash, so they’re also throwing away the most recyclables,” said John. “Many businesses could possibly be throwing away money, because cardboard and paper are currently going for around $100 per ton on the recycling market.”

The SWACO landfill is easily visible from Interstate 71, located just west of the highway and south of London-Groveport Road (SR-665). The long flat slope resembles more of a rolling hill than a mountain, yet the peak has already topped 80 feet, with more on the way. “The value in a landfill is in its airspace,” explained John. Current EPA standards will allow the height of the landfill to top out at 140 feet (around the height of a 12-story building) which will solidify the ground there as the highest peak in Franklin County.

Over the past few years, SWACO has turned their attention towards utilizing landfill trash as an energy resource. In September 2008, they opened the Green Energy Center, a small building located nearby that pulls methane gas from the landfill, runs it through an industrialized cleaner, and processes it into fuel. “Some of the gas is compressed and used for fuel in our vehicles, and some of it is sent into our microturbine,” said John. “The microturbine creates electricity, which is used to power the Green Energy Center, so it basically powers itself.”

Another way that SWACO strives to be greener is through their recycling drop-off locations found throughout the region. Their program has seen a 90% growth rate over the past five years with over 15,000 tons of material collected in 2009. “People are understanding that we don’t have all the room in the world to throw things away, and that we are throwing away energy,” said John. “We are throwing away products that could be made into new products. We’re starting to understand how to treat trash as a resource.”

SWACO also hosts an annual program called The Emerald Awards, which recognizes innovative ideas in the field of waste reduction and recycling. The 5th Annual event takes place on May 13th at the Aladdin Shrine Center, and nominations are currently being accepted. “It seems that everywhere we go in Greater Columbus, people want to tell us about their green project or idea,” said SWACO Executive Director Ron Mills. “We encourage all to enter and let everyone in Central Ohio know about their green accomplishments.”

If you’d like to submit a person, business or organization worthy of some green recognition, you can fill out the nomination form before March 26th.

After our tour ended, we ran a few extra questions by John for a short Q&A session:

Q: The topic of a city-wide recycling program comes up quite regularly on Columbus Underground. Do you have any thoughts on what that kind of system could look like?

A: You have to understand that SWACO serves all of Franklin County and a little bit of surrounding counties too. We’re not here to tell Central Ohio cities how to do things… we’re here to help those cities do things. So it’s really up to the City of Columbus to decide how best to serve its customers. We know that they have all kinds of things on their plate in terms of funding or manpower issues to accomplish what they want to do. So in terms of Columbus and how they recycle, it’s really best left up to Columbus government to decide how to proceed with that. We do provide the drop-off boxes, those are all SWACO boxes that you see in the city, as a service to all residents within our district. People continue to use them more every year. It’s obvious to us that many people in Columbus want to recycle.

Q: One of our readers mentioned that their office uses the JITRS recycling program, and recently received a notice that it may be discontinued. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

A: The JITRS program was designed several years ago to collect and recycle clean office paper, which has a high value in terms of reselling it on the recycling market. The program was designed to assist offices that were too small to be serviced by a commercial hauler, and it was also designed to pay for itself and cover expenses. The program works well in terms of collecting all the paper, but it does not cover all of the expenses that we need to keep it running. So, is it the best use of taxpayer dollars? That’s what’s up for debate right now. Can we get a private hauler to pick up where we may leave off? That’s what we’re working on. We’re working to see if there’s another way to do the program, so we had to let people know about the possibility of the program closing down. But no word yet. We’re hoping to find a private hauler that we can work out a deal with.

Q: What other types of small business recycling outreach is being done by SWACO?

A: There’s a number of programs on our website under the business tab, which offers advice and information on recycling. There’s even a do-it-yourself waste audit. You can download it and find the things that you can easily recycle in your office. We also have quarterly meetings with local business leaders to bring them up to date with various programs. We conduct a business roundtable where certain businesses that have been successful in cutting waste can share their advice and ideas with their peers.

Q: Another question that comes up regularly is the topic of e-waste. What is SWACO doing to keep electronics out of the landfill?

A: About four or five years ago we used to hold e-waste collection drives, but since then, the private industry has really stepped up. Around seven to ten companies in Franklin County are now recycling e-waste. So in response, SWACO has stepped back and reallocated taxpayer dollars to other programs where the need is greater. If you go to our website, there’s a page with info on getting rid of e-waste, which lists all of the companies in Franklin County that we know are recycling e-waste.

Q: You provide regular tours of the landfill for various groups. Is it safe to assume that it’s typically a bit of an eyeopening experience for people to see where all of their trash ends up?

A: Oh, yes. From grade-school students to government officials to neighborhood groups… for anyone to go up on that landfill and see what we’re throwing away… it is definitely a “wow” experience when it’s right there in your face. You see that there is so much we’re throwing away that doesn’t have to be there… paper, cardboard, plastic, cans and bottles. When people see the vastness of it right in front of them, they then understand better what they need to be doing differently at home or at work.

More information about SWACO can be found at swaco.org.

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