If there was an Oscar competition for the best landfills in America, surely the Sioux Falls Regional Sanitary Landfill (SFRSL) would be among the contenders.
A driving force behind sustainability in southeastern South Dakota, the fee-based landfill generates about $10 million in revenue annually, money not only used to operate the facility, but to fund other sustainability and recycling programs that serve some 240,000 people in the city and five surrounding counties.
The SFRSL, which began operations in 1979, covers 160 acres in a 709-acre tract about five miles west of Sioux Falls. The landfill accepts approximately 570 tons per day of municipal solid waste (MSW) and approximately 168 tons per day of construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Collection is totally private, provided by more than 30 licensed haulers.
The SFRSL is the largest landfill in South Dakota and is operated under permits issued by the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It has a life expectancy ending in 2074 for MSW collections and 2039 for C&D debris.
David McElroy, landfill superintendent, said landfills are not typically thought of as being sustainable; but the Sioux Falls site is really an energy center. “We are not a ‘dump’ anymore.” In fact, the landfill is building a LEED-certified environmental education center onsite.
The SFRSL mission is to provide environmentally and fiscally sound solid waste management and disposal services to its customers, said McElroy in a recent presentation at the American Public Works Association’s Sustainability in Public Works Conference in Pittsburgh.
“We are committed to maintaining and operating a solid waste management facility in accordance with established local, state, and federal laws, rules, and regulations. Equally important, the Landfill Division partners with Sioux Falls to continually strive to create a sustainable community,” McElroy said.
Those programs include the Sioux Falls mayor's Leading Green Initiative and the Public Works Sustainability Program that were established in 2008. The sustainability program operates the Leading Green Initiative by serving as a guiding program that creates a more sustainable community by proposing and assisting with the implementation of measurable solutions to environmental, social and economic concerns. Efforts focus on reducing energy consumption while improving air quality, managing land use, increasing recycling and conserving water. An important mandate is single-stream recycling.
“We consider ourselves a benchmark city with a lot of sustainability initiatives,” McElroy said. “Our landfill has played a major role in developing a Sustainability Master Plan since 2009, working with those within city and county governments and numerous external stakeholders. We consider our landfill to be a model operation.”
Landfills, of course, are still not high on many popularity lists. According to the Saint Consulting Group, Hingham, Mass., a private land use management consulting firm, landfills have been public enemy No. 1 on the list of developments people don’t want in their back yards; a list that also includes power plants, Wal-Marts, casinos and quarries.
While landfills now have a 76 percent opposition rate compared to 87 percent in 2007, Saint Consulting President Patrick Fox said, “It is difficult to come up with reasons to give abutters for why they should want to support a landfill.”
However, based on our consumption habits, landfills are obviously necessary. According to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, in 2009 54.3 percent of the MSW generated in the U.S. was disposed of at some 1,900 landfills. And, while the total number of landfills has been declining steadily, total capacity has increased. The 2010 combined capacity of the two largest landfill corporations in America was 9.3 billion tons.
“The environmental implications of landfill disposal include the loss of land area resources, potential leaching of hazardous materials to ground water (proper design limits this possibility) and emissions of methane (CH4, a greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere,” reported the center.
One of the most encouraging trends in recent years is the reduction in MSW going to landfills, the result of recycling, recovery and composting. SFRSL has received about $1 million in carbon credits.
During the past five decades American attitudes toward recycling and ecology have radically changed. Concerns regarding green issues - once largely restricted to environmental activists - entered the mainstream and impacted such issues as automobile mileage, global warming and "smart" zoning.
The SFRSL, said McElroy, is an evolving modern and well-engineered facility that strives to maintain best practices for accepting, disposing of and reusing waste. “We are revenue-based and do not have to rely on taxes. Sixty percent of the $10 million we generate annually comes from MSW tipping fees. Twenty percent comes from tipping fees for C&D waste; and the remainder from sales of our landfill gas (methane) to an ethanol plant.”
Sioux Falls and other MSW landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for approximately 17 percent of these emissions in 2009.
Until recently, methane emissions from landfills represented a lost opportunity to capture and use a significant energy resource. One of the major initiatives to help landfills take advantage of methane as alternative energy is the EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program. The SFRSL is part of this program.
General options for managing landfill gas include flaring (burning it onsite); powering boilers to make heat; powering internal combustion engines, gas turbines or fuel cells to make electricity; converting the methane to methyl alcohol; or cleaning it enough to use it as a vehicle fuel or pipeline gas.
McElroy said the landfill is generating about $180,000 a month in revenue from its methane pipeline to the POET Biorefining plant at Chancellor, S.D., about 20 miles southwest of Sioux Falls. The pipeline started operating in 2009. The POET plant uses more than 35 million bushels of locally grown corn and processes it into 110 million gallons of ethanol every year and 56,000 tons of dried distillers grains with solubles.
The largest of the POET plants in a state that is one of the leading producers of ethanol, the Chancellor facility is also unique since it produces its own energy. In addition to methane from the SFRSL, its solid waste fuel boiler also burns several hundred tons of wood chips and corn stover waste.
The SFRSL’s total permitted area of 709 acres, said McElroy, has several disposal areas for various waste products and the landfill staff makes an effort to reclaim and recycle materials where appropriate. For example, the landfill generates $90,000 a year extracting scrap metals from waste
“Our disposal areas include an MSW disposal site, C&D disposal site, a composting operation area, an asbestos disposal area, and a wood/tree/brush pile area. The landfill has moved MSW disposal to a 160-acre lined expansion site. Other surrounding SFRSL property is used for stormwater management and buffer area.
“The SFRSL funds a Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) facility where it collects hazardous items from residents that could cause problems if disposed in the landfill. The HHW facility also collects electronics from residents on a full-time basis. HHW and electronics items are reused or recycled and are diverted from the landfill,” said McElroy. It also operates two material recovery facilities.
With the adoption of the Sioux Falls Sustainability Master Plan in 2009, the Mayor’s Solid Waste Planning Board (SWPB) was also formed, said McElroy.
The board is comprised of representatives from all five counties, industry, citizens and city staff. It reviews the current waste stream, investigates how it may vary in the future, and analyzes how current and future recycling efforts may impact the stream.
It also assesses market and operating conditions and other related issues as needed. The SWPB may develop plans associated with solid waste related issues, assess current ordinances, and recommend future ordinances for consideration. The board makes ongoing reports to the mayor of its findings and recommendations.