Thursday, March 15, 2012

Field trip to Brickyard landfill with U of I environmental geology class

Field trip to Brickyard landfill with U of I environmental geology class

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The first thing I put in a trashcan most days is coffee grounds. How about you? If you’re an average American, you generate almost three pounds of unrecyclable trash each day. Beyond taking it out to the curb once a week, most people have no direct knowledge of what happens to that trash once it’s picked up by the hauler.

Not so the students in U of I professor Steve Altaner’s Environmental Geology class.

I joined them last week as they took a field trip to Brickyard Disposal & Recycling in Danville, Illinois. At Brickyard, Altaner’s students got a firsthand look at how a modern sanitary landfill operates.

Our tour began with an introduction to the facility by manager Ken Samet, who took pains to make sure students understood the stringent federal regulations governing the operation of landfills that have opened since 1992.

[Photos: Altaner and students; compactors at work (Kevin Lim); student checking out exposed coalmine shaft.]

Under those regulations, he explained, landfills must be equipped to prevent any of the liquid that leaches from garbage from contaminating the ground around them, so landfill pits are sited on impermeable soils and lined with compacted clay and heavy plastic. As the leachate captured in the landfill liner gets more than a foot deep, it is pumped into a holding pond, and then on to a wastewater treatment plant. Landfill operators are required to maintain a system of groundwater monitoring wells that alert them should leachate begin to migrate outside the pit.

Samet also emphasized that environmental regulations require landfill operators to capture some of the methane gas produced by decomposing organic matter in garbage. At the Brickyard facility, the methane is burned to generate electricity, which is fed into the power grid.

After Samet’s overview our group got back on the bus. With professor Altaner at the wheel and Samet directing, we drove to various spots around the landfill to see the things we had heard described. We were there too late in the day to witness the drama of a truck releasing a load from the top of the giant tipping face. But we did see the massive compactors rolling over the day’s intake of trash to ensure no space was wasted.

For many participants, the unexpected highlight of our landfill tour was a close-up look at the open ends of two coalmine shafts, which were exposed near the bottom of a pit that was being expanded.

Heading back toward campus, coal mining was also the subject of a stop at Kickapoo State Park. On a bluff overlooking a pond there, professor Altaner gave a brief account of the park’s origin as the site of the world’s first mechanized strip-mine. He also recounted the successful effort to preserve the nearby Middle Fork River in its free-flowing condition, which led to its designation as a “National Wild and Scenic River” in 1989.

On the last leg of the drive, I learned from Altaner that food waste represents the largest component of the municipal waste stream in the U.S., after other recyclable materials are removed. So food waste recycling (a.k.a. composting) represents one of our greatest opportunities for further reducing the overall amount of material we send to the landfill.

That’s great motivation for me to find my family’s compost pail—which went missing in our recent move—and put the coffee grounds there, rather than in the trashcan.