Waste Watchers: Knoxville's Garbage

Where does our trash finally end up?

More Waste Watchers: Find out where our recycling and our sewage ends up.

The dump.

The dump has a mythology all its own. It has become a metaphor, a trope, a fabled scene. It is a symbol of decay, but also, at times, one of possibility. Junk is worthless, true, but what is more American than the urge for our junk—and there is a lot of it—to be worth something? To turn our trash into treasure? Stories abound among the dumpster divers, the Freegans, the just plain lucky of finding someone's abandoned broken chair from the trash pile and restoring the wreck to its immaculate, incredibly valuable state.

For someone who cherishes antiques, who scours thrift stores in search of amazing finds, who has years of subscriptions of ReadyMade stacked next to years of Martha Stewart Living on her shelves, what could be more exciting than actually taking a trip to the dump, with all those acres of (smelly) pure potential?

The answer, it turns out, is just about anything. (And not because of the smell.) The dump, is turns out, no longer really exists.

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Here's what happens to your trash if you live in the city of Knoxville: A garbage truck, owned and staffed by Waste Connections, picks it up from your curb and takes it to the Chestnut Ridge Landfill, owned and staffed by Waste Management, where the trash is dumped on top of tons and tons of other trash.

And do keep it straight—Waste Connections and Waste Management are not the same company. They are, in fact, competitors. Waste Connections has the blue garbage trucks, and Waste Management has the green garbage trucks. Both companies pick up trash in Knox County. (If you live outside of Knoxville city limits, you pay for trash pickup, and if Waste Connections picks up your trash in the county, it takes it much farther away to one of two landfills it owns in east Tennessee.)

The Houston-based Waste Management is actually the largest, well, waste management company in the country, with reported revenues of $12.52 billion in 2010. Waste Connections, headquartered in Folsom, Ca., reported its 2010 revenue was only $1.32 billion.

But what is now Waste Connections has been collecting Knoxville's trash for over 20 years, since the city fist outsourced the job. (What was BFI was bought by Allied Waste in 1999, and Allied Waste sold the local unit to Waste Connections in 2002.) The company has a 10-year contract with the city and charges $6.70 per household per month to collect trash.

At around 60,000 households, that means the city pays Waste Connections close to $5 million each year to take away your trash … to that landfill.

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Even if you haven't been out to Chestnut Ridge Landfill, you've probably seen it. If you've ever driven north on I-75, and noticed those big hills with fresh grass just past the Raccoon Valley Road exit, then you've seen what happens to your trash.

Those hills aren't decorative landscaping. No, those hills are your trash.

Which means unlike the mythical dump, unlike the setting for scenes in movies, unlike the fantasy of the would-be ecologically minded Shabby Chic trash picker, you are not allowed to really get anywhere near the trash. You are confined inside site manager Rodney Phillips' red SUV on a ridge where, in the distance, you can see garbage trucks (both the green and blue ones) shedding their loads and a giant bulldozer plowing over the refuse with dirt.

A landfill, it turns out, is exactly what it sounds like. Not a place where trash is dumped, but where land is filled. The trash is compacted and covered with dirt to prevent the spread of disease, to fend off animals, to inhibit stormwater runoff. Thus, even if you were to be allowed to walk around the active dumping site (which you are not, because Phillips says it is "one of the most dangerous places on earth"), you would not be able to scavenge any furniture finds because the bulldozer would have crushed them. And even if the bulldozer was shut down, with what Phillips says are 140 acres actively being used as dumping ground, you'd have a hard time even knowing where to begin to start scavenging.

The Chestnut Ridge Landfill, which is just over the Anderson County line, opened in 1979, according to a Waste Management fact sheet, although it didn't come into serious use until the 1980s. It takes the trash from Knoxville, some of Knox County, the city of Oak Ridge, some of Anderson County, and all of Campbell County. The site is around 350 acres total, and depending on best-use practices and how much trash people keep producing, Waste Management says the landfill will likely run out of space in 20 to 30 years.

The city of Knoxville pays Waste Management $21 for each ton of trash dumped at the landfill. John Homa, the project manager for the city's office of solid waste, says residential customers in Knoxville produce an average of 50,000 tons of trash a year, so the city pays almost $1.1 million a year to Phillips and his staff.

Phillips says there's a lot to manage—a landfill requires quite a bit of engineering. A working site is excavated and covered with a plastic liner and clay; there is a system for collecting leachate (i.e., the things seeping out of compacted trash that you wouldn't want in your groundwater); there are sites to monitor the groundwater.

But beyond making sure the decomposing trash stays in the landfill and not the surrounding environment, Phillips says his job is about reinventing what a landfill does.

"This is a huge resource that can be exploited," Phillips says. "This is nothing but a big power plant!"

And Phillips does mean "power plant" in a literal sense. Chestnut Ridge is one of 119 Waste Management-owned landfills that are collecting methane gas and converting it into electricity. (Methane is a by-product of the decomposition process.) So your trash is actually in the process of becoming a (very small) part of TVA and KUB's power grid.

It may not be anything that will make a magazine photo spread, sure. But the American trash-to-treasure mythos perhaps has new legs, at the landfill.