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Getting trashed 

Lack of space won't stop us from throwing stuff away, and it has to go somewhere

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The wind howls, propelling plastic bags across scrubby grassland and pinning newspapers to chain-link fences.

It's strong enough that the door to Ken Manzo's pickup resists opening, then slams with a bang, sealing off the chaotic scene outside.

Manzo, however, is not impressed, either by the wind or the many species of migratory rubbish he sees drifting by outside.

"This is maybe 20, 25 miles per hour," he says, explaining that the wind must blow about twice that hard before an alarm sounds, shutting down operations at the 360-acre landfill he manages. "You don't see a lot of paper blowing."

Manzo, district manager for Waste Connections' Fountain landfill, drives away from the office, revealing a landscape built, shaped and marked by stuff tossed out by El Paso County residents. In 2007 alone, the most recent year for which the state has released records, this landfill swallowed more than a million cubic yards of trash. (That's enough to pile a football field, end zones included, more than 150 feet high, or comparable to a 15-story building.)

The Fountain landfill has space to continue storing trash at a similar pace for 30 more years. The county's other two landfills, run by rival Waste Management, are even roomier, with capacity for each to operate for more than 50 years.

That's more landfill space locally than you can find in some entire states, and it points to a disturbing truth about the local trash situation:

No, we're not about to run out of space for our garbage. We're in greater danger of seeing a lot of space transformed by it.

click to enlarge Workers rearrange and compact trash before covering it with dirt each night. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY
  • L'aura Montgomery
  • Workers rearrange and compact trash before covering it with dirt each night.

The road leading back to the Fountain landfill's current dumping site passes an older trash heap, a pyramid-sized "hill" that is now sealed off with several feet of dirt to let the trash slowly rot in peace.

The trash hill is dwarfed by the current project — a massive, 100-foot-tall mesa of trash that grows each day with the addition of more than 1,000 tons of rubbish.

Manzo laughs when asked if the new pile is named, replying, "No."

"Mount Trash Heap," it seems, doesn't have such a nice ring to it.

Landfills' history

Coloradans aren't squeamish about throwing stuff away. Between 1997 and 2007, the amount of trash deposited each year in the state's landfills shot up more than 65 percent to 8.4 million tons. That's enough to produce a football-field-sized column of refuse rising 2 1/2 miles high.

Pikes Peak, by comparison, rises only about a mile and a half in altitude over the city of Colorado Springs.

With 4.9 million Colorado residents in 2007, that works out to about 6.2 pounds of trash per person per day, well over the national average of about 4.5 pounds. (For math whizzes out there, the industry uses a conversion factor to figure out the amount coming from municipal uses.)

The main reason for Coloradans' copious trash production seems to be limited recycling, which goes hand-in-hand with the fact we have lots of space to bury our unwanted crap.

Getting rid of garbage used to be an informal affair, with people tossing refuse in any available hole or ravine.

"People didn't worry about it," says Mark Gebhart, the county's land development code administrator. "Plus, people didn't generate nearly as much stuff."

In Colorado Springs, major landfills started popping up in the 1950s. Two historic dumps stand out: On the east side of what is now Red Rock Canyon Open Space, sandstone ridges were used as retaining walls for what became a 53-acre trash heap.

The Templeton Gap landfill, now a grassy mound south of the new St. Francis Hospital at the intersection of Powers Boulevard and Woodmen Road, kept taking trash until the late 1980s, when it no longer seemed so remote from the city.

Regulations for landfills tightened in the 1990s. Now, there are just three (legal) trash-dumping sites in El Paso County.

In addition to Waste Connection's Fountain landfill, Waste Management runs a landfill a few miles east of the city on Colorado Highway 94, and another landfill to the south off Interstate 25 near the Pueblo County line.

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To get a permit from the state, operators of these landfills install thick liners to stop trash seepage from getting into the groundwater, along with drainage pipes to catch run-off and systems to capture methane gas released when the trash decomposes.

Because it's so dry in Colorado, decomposition is slow, meaning newspapers thrown away decades ago might still be readable now.

Plastics, glass bottles and aluminum cans degrade even more slowly here, if at all. Though recycling to keep those things out of landfills is limited in Colorado right now, Steve Eivins, district manager for Waste Management's landfills, doesn't see that as such a bad thing. If future generations need the stuff, he says, they'll know where to look.

"The way I look at it, I'm just creating a bank of material for the future," he says.

How it works

The Colorado Springs landfill beside Colorado Highway 94 took in about 1.2 million cubic yards of trash in 2007, which works out to nearly 1,000 tons of garbage each day.

The recession has slowed things down, Eivins says, with construction debris now a trickle and a general decline in new purchases meaning less packaging to get tossed out. He says the landfill now sees deposits of about 700 tons a day, with about half coming from trash trucks and most of the rest coming off flatbed trailers from transfer stations in the city.

(These stations, listed at cdphe.state.co.us/hm/transfer.pdf, save trucks and residents from a drive to the dump, though some people do still drop their own trash at the landfill.)

Eivins and others in the business convey some ambivalence about trash. Charging by the ton, they do better the more wasteful people become.

"We're a throwaway society," Eivins says. "It's disgusting."

Heavy equipment drivers at the landfills spend each day pushing, spreading and compacting fresh garbage, occasionally turning up televisions, jewelry or even money. (Eivins says Rolexes and other fancy watches have turned up, though he's mum on their fate — both Waste Management and Waste Connections have "no salvage" policies.)

People who lose things in the trash seem to have little concept of the total amount of stuff thrown away. While he was working at a different landfill years ago, Manzo says, a woman came by hoping to find a ring she believed had fallen into the trash.

"Needle in a haystack" probably doesn't do justice to the search that followed. Though employees found bags of trash containing the woman's mail, there was no sign of the ring.

Each day, Manzo says, the Fountain landfill grows by about 10 feet of trash packed down over an area the size of a regulation basketball court.

To keep trash in place each night, workers cover the fresh garbage with a layer of dirt. In the morning, they dig out in the same place or somewhere else, using an elaborate plan to build their latest, unnamed trash mountain.

Manzo verges on poetry talking about the work

"You're almost painting a picture at the end of the day," Manzo says, "and scraping it off in the morning."

lane@csindy.com

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