The trash game
The Gazette takes a trip to the Janesville landfill at a time when the city is looking to unload the facility—or even close it altogether.
Neil Johnson | Sunday, June 8, 2014
JANESVILLE—It was a decent day for garbage, if you could stand the smell.
Among the hot-ticket items delivered to Janesville's sanitary landfill on an early June summer morning: a garbage truckload of liquefied, rotten circus peanuts candy.
As the truck dumped its load, the orange marshmallow splattered from split plastic bags topping a mound of trash piled in a long, perpendicular line halfway down the landfill's 400-yard open cell.
The sweet smell of artificial banana rose from the spoiled candy as it flowed over a grimy, sun-bleached book titled “Winnie The Pooh's Easter Basket” and a plastic baby doll head that stared up with serene, blue eyes.
Then came The Beast--a giant, yellow trash compactor with a plow and steel wheels used to spread and flatten garbage at the landfill off Black Bridge Road.
Scott Buchanan—a burly, bearded landfill worker—drove The Beast over the circus peanuts, mashing and churning them into a roiling wave of white garbage bags, scattered wood scraps and diesel exhaust.
A flock of seagulls shrieked and scattered as the compactor rumbled by.
Buchanan, who has worked at the landfill 25 years, said it's refreshing to steamroll a load of putrid candy at 9 a.m.
“When you're out here all day, you like running over stuff like that,” he said. “It gives off a different garbage smell. That covers up the normal garbage smell.”
These days, Buchanan and others who work at the city dump will take whatever they can get.
The volume of trash dumped into the landfill has fallen off a cliff in the last five years. In 2013, the landfill netted 128,192 tons of trash, down from the peak of more than 275,000 tons in 2006.
This year, the landfill is on pace to receive fewer than 100,000 tons of trash, city Operations Director John Whitcomb estimates.
That would be the smallest amount of trash the landfill's seen in 20 years, according to city records.
Business operations at the landfill are simple: Large, private haulers and residents with trash get their loads weighed and measured at the gatehouse. They're charged a tipping fee. They dump. They drive away.
The formula of what makes Janesville's landfill a profitable or break-even operation is more complex, and it's changed dramatically in the last five years.
Waste volume in tons and income at the landfill have begun to dip below operational costs of running the dump and collecting garbage.
Whitcomb did not provide totals on landfill or trash collection operating costs or revenues from 2013, saying the numbers have not been officially reported. But the numbers would be key figures for the public to see as city staff and the city council chew on a plan this summer that could involve privatizing operations at the landfill or even closing it.
The city is in preliminary talks with a handful of private companies that Whitcomb has said could submit preliminary proposals, including purchase or lease options. Whitcomb has said he hopes such a change wouldn't affect service to the city's residential customers and wouldn't include privatization of municipal garbage collection.
If the city unloaded its landfill or closed it, the city could shed as much as $10 million in projected future debt, Whitcomb has said. That would leave Superior as the only Wisconsin city operating its own landfill.
Buchanan remembers a time when he'd plow The Beast over discarded boats, crushing them the way a monster truck wrecks cars.
Now he gets peanuts. Rotten marshmallow ones, at that.
Long gone are the halcyon days of 2005 to 2009, when the city openly marketed space at the landfill. It was a short-lived attempt to bring in more garbage from large private haulers to fill a growing revenue gap city officials blamed on state-imposed tax levy limits.
The decline in garbage came after the city enacted policies in 2009 to limit trash intake from other communities. The city did not renew some hauler's contracts or lowered the amount they could dump at the landfill. That was to slow the landfill from filling before 2023, when the city was scheduled to retire the current, five-cell dump area.
The policies combined with the Great Recession, which slowed consumer waste disposal and fueled more intense competition in the waste hauling and disposal market, cut the amount of garbage delivered to the landfill. It ended a trend of trash revenues subsidizing the city budget.
“It all just unfolded over the last four or five years. It seems everything aligned to conspire against us, here,” Whitcomb said.
In 2011, the city sought to stabilize an emerging sanitation fund gap by imposing fees for municipal garbage collection. Those fees doubled in 2014, but they aren't enough to offset the landfill's latest blow: the loss of tons of garbage from some of its biggest customers, including the former Sherman Sanitation.
The company didn't renew its contract with the city after it was bought up by Advanced Disposal, which owns Mallard Ridge near Delavan. Whitcomb said Advanced now brings very little trash to Janesville.
Whitcomb said some haulers will hold garbage at their own facilities and eat their losses to “internalize” the trash over a short term. It's a strategy, he said, to “put us municipal landfills under.”
“It's the same thing that's played in other municipalities who owned landfills,” he said.
Here's an idea of the volume some large hauling companies bring into Janesville's landfill: Waste Management, which Whitcomb says is one of the landfill's most steady customers, has dumped 6,000 to 13,000 tons a year at the landfill in the last three years.
That's as much as 5 to 10 percent of the landfill's total annual volume in recent years. By weight, that's $450,000 in tipping fees.
The trash market is competitive enough that one Madison waste hauler actually drives past Janesville to dump garbage at a facility in Rockford, Illinois, Whitcomb said.
That's in part because state tipping fees in Illinois are a fraction of Wisconsin's mandated state surcharge, which has jumped from $5.90 a ton in 2008 to $13 a ton, Whitcomb said. It's the biggest reason the landfill's annual operational costs have doubled from $2 million a few years ago to more than $4 million now. Those extra costs are passed on to haulers.
“It's become a local issue, and it's affected our ability to compete in the regional marketplace. They could be stopping here, but they're not,” Whitcomb said.
Buchanan didn't want to say too much about the potential of the landfill changing hands or even closing.
"I don't know what to say, I guess, but when you see volumes of trash going down and down, that never gives you an easy feeling,” he said.
As he stood in the bright blue day among mounds of trash and circling vultures, Buchanan talked about his experiences at the landfill. Like the time he saw a coyote, glistening with garbage, lunge from the back of a hauler's truck. And how no matter how many times you mash a Sealy mattress with The Beast, it'll just keep popping up from the ground.
Even when it smells rancid on a hot day, to Buchanan, the dump can be a nice place. Sometimes, a bald eagle or a friendly, longtime customer in a pickup truck shows up and brightens a tough day.
That's the city's trash game, even if it's shrinking.
“I don't know,” Buchanan said. “I guess I really do love it here.”