Where It All Goes

What happens to your trash and recycling after it’s hauled off

The Rumpke Sanitary Landfill in Colerain Township, colloquially known as Mount Rumpke, is massive. This behemoth monument to our mass consumption and throwaway culture towers as the highest point in Hamilton County at 1,070 feet — the next highest elevation (962 feet) is the natural hill at the corner of Colerain Avenue and North Bend Road on which a water tower sits.

The landfill, regularly topped with the Stars and Stripes and seasonally with a Christmas tree and Easter greetings, is just the part that’s visible from U.S. Route 27. Like an iceberg, you can’t appreciate the true scale of the place until you look beneath the surface — or at least until you enter the heart of the facility from Struble Road.

Once inside (free tours are available by appointment) you’ll find a barren, alien landscape where the surface earth has been blasted away, revealing a craggy gray interior. Water wells up in areas planned to collect runoff, and vehicles are constantly milling back and through, delivering fresh waste to the fill.

You’ll notice I haven’t called it a dump. Rumpke Corporate Communication Manager Amanda Pratt pleaded for me to make it clear that it’s anything but.

“Please don’t call it a dump,” Pratt says. “Dump is a four-letter word to us. It’s a sanitary landfill. It’s the best available technology to make sure it’s disposed of in a safe manner, and if we didn’t have it, what kind of a society would we have? It’s not just throwing it in the hole.”

Into the landfill

More than two million locals are served by the Rumpke landfill with up to 7,500 tons of garbage a day, both business and residential waste, deposited in the ever-expanding site. I feel like saying it’s buried, but describing the waste this way is simplistic and incomplete.

Referring to Mount Rumpke, Rumpke District Manager Larry Riddle gave me the lay of the land(fill): “That’s fairly old garbage, before the liner was in place.”

He quickly ran through an explanation of the site, which is divided into a number of phases or sectors. There are the old landfill site and the newer area to the south that’s being filled in some phases and excavated in others.

Every day, Rumpke employees blast away a section of the landfill, opening up more of the rock.

“The formation is generally a shale with some limestone interlaced through it, but we can’t excavate it with normal excavators,” Riddle says. “That’s why we use the blasting technique.”

The liner that Riddle mentioned is essentially a goliath-sized trash can liner made of high-density polyethylene plastic. It’s laid in strips along the bottom of the fill and up the strategically cut slope, then fused together to make an impermeable layer.

The water that runs through helps to decompose the trash and is siphoned out when it reaches the bottom. As if along a great industrial digestive tract, the trash moves through many stages — once delivered, composting vehicles with medieval looking grinding wheels instead of tires compress and break it up, staff remove large sharp bits that could pierce the liner and the whole load is digested over decades (insert Sarlaac Pit Monster joke).

Like a real stomach, it gets gassy, too. The natural gas mined from the landfill is used by Duke Energy and supplies 20,000 area homes.

“We’re a big compost pile,” Riddle says. “The organic material in the waste helps make the biological reactions to both make methane and to break down the garbage.”

Riddle says the southern expansion of the landfill — about 38 million cubic yards of airspace — will fill up in about 15 years. At that time it will equal the height and reach about 75 percent of the volume of Mount Rumpke, which has taken 45 years to build.

‘The true environmentalists’

If the landfill looks like the surface of the moon, then Rumpke’s Material Recovery Facility — the recycling center — is a grungy gray space ship. The giant warehouse is in constant motion with turning, winding, compressing machines and laced with conveyor belts and catwalks.

More than 90 percent of the materials brought into the site are reclaimed, Pratt says, and half of what’s wasted is because consumers placed the wrong items in their recycling bins. The facility processes 900 tons of reyclables a month — less than half a percent of the monthly landfill input — but it’s still a staggering amount, with bottles, cans and paper standing in piles two stories tall.

Fifty employees work in two shifts daily to sort the mountain of bottles, cans and paper and ship them to businesses that make them into new products. None of the actual recycling is done on site; Rumpke collects, sorts and sells the materials to others who do that end of the work.

Rumpke Municipal Public Sector Representative Anne Gray says Rumpke takes plastics labeled No. 1 and No. 2, but bottles only; nothing with a mouth that’s as wide or wider than its base, which excludes tubs of peanut butter and cream cheese. She asks that consumers remove caps, which can shoot off the bottles during processing, and rinse the materials.

Plastic bags can’t be recycled, and neither can pizza boxes due to food contamination. She says she’s often asked why the green curbside bins can’t be larger, like trash cans.

“It’s to limit the weight since the drivers have to lift each one,” she says.

Gray says a pilot program is underway in Montgomery to test how consumers react to recycling incentives. Special bins with RFID chips identify their owners and let Rumpke know how much a given household recycles every week by weight. Incentives such as gift certificates are given to people who recycle the most.

“I think, when you work here every day, it’s a newfound awareness,” Pratt says. “What a difference you can make by taking a second. And once you develop the habit you don’t even notice — putting your recyclables in a bin and making sure they’re not going to the landfill.”

Gray says the job of recyclers, especially the drivers who collect the materials to be processed, is often taken for granted.

“A lot of people think of us as the garbage company,” Pratt says. “How often do they consider the fact that we’re the true environmentalists? There are people that say ‘Go green,’ but we’re figuring out ways to make it a reality.”

Check out CityBeat's GREEN ISSUE PODCAST here for an interview with Mike Reynolds, a UC architecture grad whose Greater World Community in New Mexico features more than 60 homes built from waste materials, and Jim and Eileen Schenk of Imago in Price Hill.

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