Vermont has only one operational landfill in the entire state. The Coventry Landfill takes more than two-thirds of the 600,000 tons of waste thrown away every year — but most Vermonters have never seen it.
A few weeks ago, VPR got a tour of the facility from Joe Gay, an engineer with Casella Waste Systems, which owns and operates the landfill.
Coventry is up near the Canadian border, next to Newport and Lake Memphremagog. The landfill itself is out of town, right next to the expanding Newport airport.
On maintaining the landfill
"We are the only operating landfill in the state," says Gay. "We do not take [household solid waste] from out of state, so what you're seeing is Vermont generated waste."
Although at first glance the sprawling, 70-acre landfill may look like a quintessential dump, Gay cautions against mislabeling the facility.
"I think people traditionally when they hear 'dump' they think of what they might have remembered as a child growing up," says Gay. "It's just a lot different now, with the containment system and all the regulations that we have, and the way we manage the gas off the landfill."
Strict state regulations dictate that the waste must be covered with six inches of dirt every night to ensure that minimal waste is swept out of the facility by winds.
"On several occasions we will show up in the morning to begin our daily operations and the state will be waiting at the gate, and they'll want to come in to see how we did the night before," says Gay.
This burying process reduces odor, and helps to minimize issues with water runoff. Rain, snow and other liquids end up at the bottom of the landfill, where they are contained by two layers of polyethylene plastic liners separated by 18 inches of soil.
"Waste water will accumulate in that low spot, and then we pump that waste water out of the landfill and haul that waste water to a treatment facility," says Gay.
On the day-to-day
Any litter that finds its way out of the landfill's fences, blown by gusts of wind, is gathered and brought back to be buried. "We have a litter patrol that goes around to collect the litter, bag it up and bring it back to the site," says Gay.
And where there is trash, there are birds. This has become an issue given the proximity of the landfill to the Newport airport. There are federal restrictions regulating how close landfills can be to airports, specifically because of the possibility of bird strikes, which can disable aircraft in flight. Because of that, the Coventry landfill carefully monitors how many birds are circling the active landfill, in sight of the Newport airport runway.
"We have a full time U.S.D.A. staff person here," says Gay. "His job is to manage the gulls, as well as crows, to minimize the risk of bird to airplane collision."
This employee uses pyrotechnics, called 'shot crackers' or 'bottle rockets', to scare off the birds. Years of this back-and-forth pursuit has trained the birds to take flight whenever his familiar pickup truck rolls onto the scene.
"The gulls are smart enough to know the difference between his vehicle and others vehicles," says Gay. "That's a fact."
On the landfill's gas collection
Collecting and managing the ozone-depleting landfill gas produced by 70 acres of waste is no simple feat.
The gas that is harnessed from waste through vacuum systems throughout the facility is sent to an energy plant on the property, where it is then utilized as a renewable source. The facility, owned and operated by Washington Electric Cooperative, is capable of producing up to eight megawatts of power when it is at full capacity.
The vacuum tubes used to collect gas for renewable energy serve another purpose: reducing odor for the landfill and its neighbors.
"By harnessing the gas, not only are we controlling the odors and reducing the impacts to the neighborhood, but we're also reducing the impacts to global warming," says Gay.
On the impact of Vermont's mandatory recycling and composting laws
In 2012, the Vermont legislature unanimously passed the Universal Recycling law. This law gradually phases in stricter waste disposal regulations over an eight year period. This past July, the ban on metal, glass, plastic, cardboard and other recyclables in the waste stream went into effect.
"Over the last couple of months we have seen a drop in our waste acceptance here at the facility," says Gay. "So if that's an indication of the new regulation, I think the state is definitely headed in the right direction."
"Still, as we look at the trash coming out of the trucks today, there is way too much recycling that still comes into this facility," says Gay. He says that Vermonters have to work harder to remove recyclables from their trash.
In regards to the mandatory residential composting law that goes into effect across Vermont in 2020, Gay notes that an increase in organics diversion will cause energy production at the gas plant to take a hit.
"I don't think we're seeing any impacts as we stand here today," says Gay. "But I think over time we will start to see a loss of production of landfill gas by taking the organics out of the waste stream."
Gay says he thinks the Coventry Landfill could operate for another 30 or 35 years if the facility gets the permits necessary for expansion.