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Waste Not, Want Not: The Millersville Landfill is Anne Arundel County’s Epicenter of Recycling and Waste Management

Jan 21, 2016 09:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

Recycling program specialist, Kristin Lagana, stands in front of compacted cubes of aluminum cans bound for recycling.

By Kristen Peterson // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.

Expected to reach capacity by 2043, the Millersville landfill is Anne Arundel County’s epicenter of recycling and waste management

About a mile off of Route 32, between Severn and Millersville, is a mound that rises 243-feet above sea level—one of the highest points in Anne Arundel County. The apex offers a panorama of hundreds of acres of green grass, pockets of trees, and the occasional dirt pile. Upon closer look, deer can be seen lounging in the shade as squirrels dart back and forth on tree limbs. Far off in the distance, the smoke pipes of Baltimore loom in stark contrast to this idyllic location that smells of mulch and dogwood trees.

If asked, a visitor might guess that they are at a park or a quarry. Wrong. The mound is made up of layers upon layers of the county’s trash, collected nearly two decades ago. It is bordered by similar masses.

Welcome to the Millersville Landfill and Resource Recovery Facility, run by the Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works. Located on 564 acres, the site is the only active municipal solid waste landfill owned by Anne Arundel County. It began accepting trash in 1975.

Bags of yard waste are opened and added to a mountainous compost pile.

 

Trash Tours

A huge excavator slowly trudges up a road next to the hill.

“That’s my new machine,” exclaims Joel Saline, Millersville landfill manager, lighting up like a kid on Christmas morning. Relaxed and astute, Joel brings almost 20 years of waste management experience, five of which have been spent at this site. He is a wealth of knowledge on the intricacies of landfills and composting operations.

His colleague, Kristin Lagana, stands next to him, watching the equipment ascend. With bright red-hair, heart-shaped sunglasses, and a whole lot of spunk, Lagana is not what one may picture as a typical waste management employee. And perhaps she’s not.

A recycling program specialist by day; she can be found on stage by night, singing in one of her three bands: her rock band, Victims of Experience, her funk band, Reverend SmackMaster and the Congregation of Funk, or Mood Swings Big Party Band, a 26-person ensemble that plays gigs at well-known venues and residences…like the White House.

And she just may be as passionate about recycling as she is about her music. “I start singing about recycling when I take school kids on tour around our facilities,” she says with a laugh. “The teachers look at me like ‘wow she is really into this.’ And I am. But I will use any excuse to start singing!”

Kristin often begins her tours with the Central Recycling Facility, which is part of the Millersville grounds. Here citizens can unload a number of items at various stations where they drive up and drop off. The first station is for liquids—motor and cooking oils, and antifreeze—which are cleaned and sold to manufacturing companies to power machines.

As a resident continues down the recycling path, they are greeted by a waste management employee who answers any questions and directs them to the other stations depending on their items: typical household recyclables like paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, and glass; electronics (no TVs or monitors though); scrap metal; latex paint; tires; vinyl siding; car batteries; even oyster and clam shells, which are collected through a program with the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

The lower recycling area is for bigger loads like brush, yard waste, and appliances. Everything is collected at the site and then shipped elsewhere, except for rubble, brush, grass, and leaves, which are handled on site. Tires are shipped to Aberdeen, for example, where they are burned in an incinerator.

The cost for drop-off at the recycling center or the landfill is free for an Anne Arundel County resident in a non-commercial vehicle. On average, 70,000 tons of trash is buried at the landfill annually compared to 23,000 tons of material recovered for reuse and recycling.

“With limited landfill space left, we have introduced a variety of waste management alternatives,” Saline says. “If more residents know and use our recycling facility, we can utilize our landfill space longer.”
An open landfill cell will eventually receive trash.
Landfills are divided into cells—designated areas where the land will be prepared for trash disposal. With seven of the landfill’s nine disposal cells already at capacity, “diversifying the portfolio” was a smart move.

Cells 1–7 were full, closed, and capped by 1992 and contain a total of 8.49 million cubic yards of waste. Cell 8 will be filled by June of 2016. Cell 9—the largest of the cells—should hold the county’s trash through 2043. What happens after that remains an unknown, but most likely means shipping trash to another county. This pricey option, which will cost county taxpayers, underscores the importance of recycling.

Going Through the Garbage

Ever wonder how a landfill operates and is designed? According to Saline, “The Millersville facility is not a dump, it’s an engineered fill.”

To prevent fires, landfill cells consist of alternate layers of trash and dirt. When at capacity, the cell is capped with a minimum of two feet of soil, a liner, a drainage layer and another six inches of soil to maintain viable vegetation like grass. Underneath the cap and the layers, the cells are most often lined with clay and include pipes, pumps, and probes that are part of leachate collection systems, as well as groundwater and storm water management systems. These systems are designed to monitor for landfill gas and other environmental hazards.

As trash decomposes and settles, it generates landfill gas, which is 50 percent methane and 50 percent carbon dioxide. A system to collect the gas from capped cells has been in place at the Millersville landfill since the mid 1990s. Prior to 2012, the gas was extracted from the landfill cells and burned in an enclosed flare.

That changed with the 2012 Landfill Gas to Energy Project, which uses the gas as a fuel source for generating energy—3.2 megawatts of electricity to be exact—through power centers that were built at the site two years ago. The facility sells electricity to the power grid through an agreement with Baltimore Gas and Electric, which adds revenue to the county.
Workers sort through recyclables, dividing the differing materials, which are packaged and sold to third-party companies.
“It’s pretty cool to think that our trash is powering 2,000 homes,” Lagana says enthusiastically.

Another way the county is reducing landfill waste: composting. Grass and leaves are collected curbside and finely ground to speed-up the composting process. The material is put into windrows—long rows that include a turner that spin the organic matter to aerate it and maintain moisture and heat. The compost is cured for 110–120 days and needs to reach a temperature of 130 degrees to ensure all of the weeds and seeds are dead. It is then screened to remove plastic and unwanted material. The facility markets approximately 5,000 cubic yards of compost annually, which is sold for topsoil. According to Saline, it is not 100 percent compost, but is still very good quality.

“People often send their yard waste in plastic bags, and the plastic is not compostable,” Saline says. “If I could ask citizens to do one thing that would make a huge difference to our waste management efforts, it would be to put yard waste in paper bags or compost bins.”

He adds, “If I could ask for two things, it would be for residents to recycle more often.”

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

In 2008, the county launched the Recycle More Often campaign. Thanks to these outreach efforts, the county recycling rate has increased from 31 percent to 44 percent.

Recyclable items are collected at the curb and then delivered to Waste Management Recycle America (WRMA) in Elkridge. The Elkridge center serves Anne Arundel County, the city of Annapolis, and parts of other Maryland counties, including Howard.

Walking into the center, the hum of the conveyor belts, and sorting machines is deafening. Employees’ hearing is checked annually. They don’t seem to mind the noise though. Some have worked at the center for seven or eight years.
Collection tanks hold leachate, the runoff that results from rain water filtering through the landfill cells.
“The comfort of our employees is top of mind,” says Kathleen O’Connor, operations specialist.

In addition to safety gear, benefits, and vacation time, management provides workers with water and Gatorade and numerous breaks that increase as temperatures do.

“We hand out freeze pops during the hot summer days and hot chocolate in winter to all of the workers out on the floor,” O’Connor adds.

Using a combination of manual effort and mechanical equipment, the “floor” consists of a maze of sorting machines connected to conveyor belts and typically includes about 30 employees working at a time. Trucks filled to the brim with recyclables pull-up to the center and unload items, which are eventually put onto the main belt.

“Large items tend to get stuck in the belt here and can jam up the system,” O’Connor explains. The side of a toddler’s jungle-gym caught in the belt reinforces her point as it sways back and forth, trapping hundreds of items behind it.

“I wish to God I started taking pictures from the first day I started,” she adds. “I could have made a pretty cool coffee table book! Brakes, garbage disposals, horse saddles…it’s amazing what people put in their recycling bin.”

The belt heads up to the top floor where four brawny men pick out any large items by hand that may get wedged and halt the process and any non-recyclable items.

As the belt advances, heavy glass shoots down an opening to a large bin on the bottom floor, breaking on the descent and spraying shards across the metal floor.
Bales of cardboard await shipping.
The system has sensed the weight of the glass and separated it from the other items. The remaining objects—paper, aluminum, cardboard, and plastic—continue on the path until they are eventually sorted and shifted based on weight or material. Light paper goes one route while the heavier cardboard is detoured to another belt. The lingering objects continue on the main belt, the thoroughfare. A magnet picks out the metal items, like steel cans, and shuffles them down a side track while the system’s “optical eye” discerns various types of plastic like milk jugs versus soda bottles.

The employees, known by management as “the brains,” are the final cog of this well-oiled machine. Take the paper. On one of the secondary belts, two women wearing hard hats, safety goggles, and gloves sort through the paper, removing any items that ended up on the wrong belt—cardboard or plastic bottles.

The paper is made into bales. It comes out of the bailing machine looking like a caterpillar inching across the floor. The bales each weigh two tons and the facility produces 30–35 bales per hour, or about one every two minutes.

Supervisors conduct quality control, sometimes even cutting into the middle of the bale to inspect for unwanted material like plastic. If too much plastic is found, the bale goes back through the system.

“It’s very cool,” O’Connor says. “[Shipping containers] arrive at the port of Baltimore from China full of TVs and electronic goods to sell at our retail stores. They leave with 70 percent of our county’s recycled paper. I don’t know what they use it for exactly, but it’s satisfying to see crates filled with two-ton bales of our paper heading back over the ocean.”

The other 30 percent of paper remains in the U.S. and is shipped to companies such as Georgia Pacific to use in products, including paper towels and toilet tissue.

Glass is sent to a landfill in King George, Virginia, where it’s used as drainage in between layers of trash, or to a glass recycler where it is made into new glass. Plastic is sold to Trigon Plastics and repurposed as laundry or soap bottles.

Aluminum, the most profitable item, is sold to an international beverage distributor. According to Plant Manager Bob McCann, “Within two months, the cans are cleaned, melted down, beer-filled, and back on the store shelves.”
landfill manager Joel Saline shows a handful of nutrient rich compost

 

Recycle. More. Now.

Kristin Lagana suddenly looks small, standing next to piles of recycled aluminum cans that must be at least 20-feet high. “A lot of residents don’t realize that they don’t need to completely wash recyclables before putting them out for collection,” she explains. “Now, that doesn’t mean throw an entire jar of peanut butter away or recycle a full two-liter soda bottle—that’s wasteful and potentially messy during the collection and sorting process. Just use what you can, then recycle the container.”

“I got my boyfriend into recycling too,” she adds. “I hear him when we have guests over now, like ‘hey you know that is recyclable’ and bragging that we hardly put out any actual trash on trash day.”

It seems her enthusiasm has spread to one more Marylander.

“Seeing the whole process makes you realize how important recycling is,” Lagana says with a hint of pride.

Indeed.

Items That Can Be Recycled

Paper newspapers, junk mail, catalogs, pizza boxes, food boxes, books, cardboard, paper egg cartons, milk and juice cartons, juice boxes, shredded paper, empty paper towel or toilet paper holders

Plastic bags, bottles (drink, shampoo, detergent, spray, sunscreen), butter tubs, yogurt or fruit containers, cups and plates, lawn furniture, flower pots, buckets, toys, pools, and playsets

Metal aluminum foil, pans, cans, empty aerosol cans, and food cans

Glass bottles and jars of any color

Tips for Anne Arundel County Residents

• Never put recyclables in the trash container; collected trash is taken to a landfill and buried forever.

• Recyclables should be placed loose in the recycling cart, container, or bin.

• When it comes to absorbent paper products such as napkins and plates, we can only recycle these items if they are free of food.

• The county program does not accept Styrofoam or cellophane, mostly found with snack packaging like chip bags and candy wrappers.

• The program accepts electronics at facilities and hazardous material on Household Hazardous Waste days. More info on these programs can be found at www.aacounty.org/wastemangement.

• Yard waste should be placed in compostable (not plastic) bags or an even better choice is to use a mulching mower on your lawn and practice backyard composting for leaves.
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