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A trash truck dumps its load in the working phase of the Larimer County Landfill in July outside of Fort Collins. The landfill is among those in Colorado nearing capacity. It will run out of space in 2024. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In seven years, the mounds of earth growing toward the sky west of Fort Collins will fit in with the landscape that surrounds them, foothills dotted with sagebrush and wild grasses that wave in hot summer wind.

No trees are allowed to grow in these hills, though. That’s because their roots could penetrate a thick clay cap that will keep about 60 years’ worth of trash hidden from sight.

The Larimer County Landfill must close by the end of 2024, when it will reach its capacity.

Not one more kitchen trash bag full of melon rinds and take-out containers will enter its gates. Not another bicycle, broken sofa or demolition pile of wood, nails and crushed tile will pass through in a pickup or commercial trash truck.

The landfill will join the 190 other closed garbage dumps, thousands of acres of buried trash across Colorado. And Larimer County isn’t the only landfill that’s nearly full.

Colorado once had 150 active landfills. Today, it has just 58, but the state isn’t out of room for garbage. Some landfills in Colorado, which adds thousands of trash-producing residents each year to its population, have more than 100 years of life left.

But that’s not the point, conservationists and landfill workers say.

“Trash gulls” fly over a section of the Larimer County Landfill, which will reach capacity in seven years. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Do we really want to continue using these landfills for another 125 years? There are much better ways to dispose of what we consider trash,” said Harlin Savage with Boulder-based Eco-Cycle, one of the largest nonprofit recyclers in the country.

Colorado is seen as a state with “green credentials,” she said, but, in practice, it ranks in the bottom half of states for how little it recycles. 

The state’s diversion rate — which measures how much waste is diverted from landfills through recycling — is rotten. Colorado is at 19 percent, compared to the national average of 34 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

In 2016, the most recent year the data is available, Colorado dumped 7.9 million tons of trash in its landfills. The 2016 total is 410,000 tons more than the year before. And 936,000 tons more than the year before that. Since those 2016 totals were calculated by the state, Colorado has added an estimated 150,000 people.

Coloradans create 9.6 pounds of trash per person per day, with about 7.8 pounds of that going to the dump while 1.8 pounds is recycled or reused, according to a 2018 state health department report to the legislature.

And those numbers are getting worse, as the amount of trash per person is rising and the percentage recycled has dropped in recent years.

Jeff Boltz, who has worked at the Larimer County landfill for 21 years and will retire about the same time as the landfill itself, still is shocked by what some people throw away, including a pair of leather sofas.

Boltz is the kind of guy who washes out margarine containers and reuses them to hold his lunch. The assistant director of solid waste, who bounces over roads built atop capped portions of the landfill in his pickup, doesn’t use plastic baggies. He re-homes old furniture. And he realizes most people don’t think about garbage as much as he does, or think about it much at all.

“They roll it out to the sidewalk. After work, they roll it back in. It’s here; it’s gone,” he said.

“They don’t think about it again.”

Larimer County, which opened in 1963, has already capped much of its buried trash. The land looks like any other rolling hill, but has become sunken in spots where the waste underneath has decomposed. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Few of the 190 closed landfills in Colorado have been inspected

As Colorado’s population has boomed, along with its tons of trash, the number of operating landfills has shrunk.

The reason: stricter environmental regulations that went into place in the 1990s and the steeper cost of complying with them.

Colorado now has 58 landfills that take household trash, far more than several East Coast states where remaining landfills number in the single digits.

While smaller, city- and county-run landfills still operate, there are fewer of them, and along the Front Range, the trash of Colorado’s major cities is consolidated in huge, often commercially operated landfills.

Making sure the 190 capped and closed landfills in this state are not polluting soil or water is a major undertaking, and one that hasn’t begun in full force.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently began creating an inventory of landfills that closed after 1967, when the state passed the Colorado Solid Waste Act and began regulating them. Most of the closed landfills in Colorado shut down under looser requirements than currently exist, purposefully ceasing operations ahead of 1993 federal rules that ramped up environmental standards.

About 90 landfills in Colorado opted to close instead of meet the standards. State officials intend to inspect each of them to determine whether they were closed properly and present “a low risk to the people and the environment.”

The site visits of those landfills, many now closed for 25 years, have not yet begun.

Jefferson and El Paso counties each have nine closed landfills. Adams County has eight, Huerfano has three and Denver has one, according to the state’s inventory.

Larimer County’s landfill is following current, stricter federal requirements to make sure it will not emit unacceptable levels of methane gas, pollute the groundwater or leave trash exposed after it closes. And the state health department will inspect it to make sure.

Besides the new initiative to inspect closed landfills, the department checks on closed landfills after receiving complaints or as part of the current post-closure monitoring requirements.

A handful of closed landfills were out of compliance with solid-waste regulations this year.

Among them was Capulin Landfill in Conejos County, where inspectors in 2014 found evidence of illegal dumping on county property. Construction debris, concrete, trash, furniture, tires, electronics and various 5-gallon containers were scattered across the landscape. No gate or lock prevented people from entering illegally and throwing out their household or construction trash, according to state records.

The state levied the maximum $10,000 fine against the county in 2016 for violating the Colorado Solid Waste Act but lifted it last month after the land was cleaned up, according to documents reviewed by The Colorado Sun under state public records laws.

Open landfills are inspected annually in Colorado mainly by a five-person division at the state health department. The state has a new goal of inspecting each landfill at least once per year, an improvement from previous years when the department did not have enough staff to visit every landfill annually and traveled to inspect landfills typically after receiving complaints.

When state inspectors visit, they are making sure the landfill is keeping its work space to a minimum, meaning only a small portion of trash is exposed to air.

They also make sure the landfill is monitoring wind speed, that a liner is functioning to prevent decomposing waste from seeping heavy metals and pathogens into groundwater, and that trash left exposed overnight is covered with a biodegradable powder or other substance to keep it from blowing away or being carried by birds.

Landfills with minor compliance issues, such as paperwork problems that are easily corrected, are asked to make the changes. Those with more serious violations are issued a compliance advisory, and landfills that fail to comply or clean up environmental problems can receive the highest level of action, called a compliance order.

Nine operating landfills in Colorado are now under compliance orders: Milner, Firstview, Phantom, Phillips County, Sedgwick County, Eads, Granada, Washington County and Lincoln County.

Washington County Landfill, for example, was cited in 2016 for exceeding allowed levels of explosive gases and failing to minimize windblown trash.

About 30 landfills in Colorado have compliance problems rising to at least the second-level advisory status, according to state records. Small landfills are far more likely to have compliance issues, with 17 out of 19 small landfills listed as not compliant by the state health department.

In Aspen, the landfill is filled with demolition debris

Pitkin County Landfill is another of Colorado’s landfills nearing capacity. In Aspen, where on average, each house is torn down and rebuilt every 20 to 25 years, the dump is full of demolition materials.

Wood. Shingles. Busted cabinets and piles of drywall.

Nationally, the average landfill space filled by construction materials is about 20 percent. In Pitkin County, it’s 62 percent, said Cathy Hall, the county’s solid waste manager.

The landfill, which opened in the 1960s, has six or seven years left before it runs out of space. The county has asked the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for two permits to expand — a north-end expansion that could take eight years’ worth of trash and a south-end that one could take up to 42.

A third option is to construct a “transfer station,” which would collect the county’s trash to get hauled 40 miles away to a landfill in Glenwood Springs or to Rifle, 70 miles away.

Besides asking for more space, Pitkin County towns are trying to divert construction trash from the landfill by rewriting building permits to require recycling. Carbondale, for example, is debating whether to require builders to recycle 50 percent of material if they want to construct a building in that town.

Problem is, it’s tough to find industries that want to buy the material. Drywall, for one, is not considered a recyclable material in Colorado, though it is in other states.

“We are looked at as such an environmentally friendly state, but we have a really terrible diversion rate,” Hall said. “That’s awful.”

Part of the reason is that recycling is expensive and the landfill is cheap. It costs $56 per ton to dump household trash in Pitkin County landfill, yet it’s $76 per ton to ship recyclables to Denver.

Hall is fed up with hearing people say they buy bottled water but they recycle it, which likely means that bottle travels from Colorado to a port in California, onto a ship bound for China.

“Our mindset is just don’t even generate it to begin with,” she said. “Do you know how hard it is to recycle that bottle?”

Colorado’s largest landfill won’t fill up for 120 years

It’s hard to comprehend the amount of trash dumped each day at the landfill that takes in the most trash annually in Colorado.

The 2,364-acre landfill east of Denver, which takes the bulk of the metro area’s waste, gets a daily average of nearly 8,000 tons —  about 60 percent of which is household trash, 20 percent of which is construction and demolition debris, and 20 percent manufacturing waste.

Neighborhood trash trucks, which hold 7 to 8 tons of trash, typically dump their loads at transfer stations in Commerce City or Englewood.

Then giant tipper trucks — so-named because their trailers detach and tip to nearly vertical — collect the trash from the transfer stations and drive it to Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site, called DADS for short.

A tipper truck dumps its contents at the Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site (DADS) on July 18 in Aurora. DADS receives more trash per year than any other landfill in Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The tippers drive to the edge of the landfill, wherever the current work phase is for the day, and back up to a tipper deck to detach the trailer from the cab. A worker in a shack pushes a button and the trailer lifts skyward, dumping 20 to 25 tons of trash into the landfill in just a few seconds.

Each day, the landfill’s workers are in an ever-changing, relatively small section of acreage, leaving only an acre or two of exposed trash at a time. Giant machines, including a $1 million monster with tires of studded steel, crush and level the garbage that shows up nearly nonstop.

The machines crunch and roll over the trash, creating a bottom layer of commercial waste — shingles and hinges — followed by a top layer of household trash — old mattresses and coffee grounds and toys. Household trash is layered on top because some of it will decompose, while construction trash will remain in place as a base layer.

Loose trash has the density of 300 to 600 pounds per cubic yard, but the machines can squish it so much that 1 cubic yard contains up to 1,800 pounds of garbage.

The more trash that fits into a landfill, the more money the landfill makes in its lifetime. “We’re selling space,” said Marcel Kozlowski, site engineer at DADS, which is owned by Denver but run by Waste Management.

The quest for efficiency also translates to methane gas, which is produced from decomposing garbage. A system of wells and pipes at the landfill collects the methane and sends it to a pair of refitted Caterpillar diesel engines. The energy produced goes to the Xcel Energy grid, enough to power 2,500 homes per year.

This gas-to-energy plant at the landfill uses methane to produce power, which is sold to Xcel Energy. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The landfill also has a composting section, where rows of chipped wood mixed with unusable food products and leftovers from a pet food company bake in the sun.

Not far from the pungent rows of compost and the heavy machinery crunching trash, two antelope trotted through the weeds on a recent visit.

Kozlowski doesn’t pay for trash service. Instead, he brings his bags of garbage and recyclables every other week to the landfill he engineers.  “I’m a trash man,” is his simple explanation.

But a deeper reason is that he is annoyed about how many different trash companies come through his neighborhood, where every resident is allowed to choose their own hauler. It’s a joke among “trash guys” that Coloradans believe it’s their “God-given right to choose their own trash company,” unlike other states where it’s common for cities or counties to contract with one trash company.

This landfill, east of C-470 in Aurora with the skyscrapers of downtown Denver visible in the distance, has the capacity to keep taking garbage for 120 more years if, as a DADS spokeswoman said, Coloradans “recycle all their clean bottles, cans, paper and cardboard.”

“Be conscious of what you’re using and how you are disposing it,” Kozlowski said.

Appliances are collected for recycling in a section of the Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site in Aurora. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Larimer County has seven years of trash space left

The Larimer County Landfill appears on the horizon outside of Fort Collins, noticeable at first only because of the giant heavy machinery roving atop the hills. Just beyond the mini-mountains made of trash is Horsetooth Reservoir.  Upscale homes are perched on the highest hills, a view of the reservoir on one side and the landfill the other.

The landfill, which opened in 1963, has already capped much of its buried trash. The land looks like any other rolling hill, but has become sunken in spots where the waste underneath has decomposed. Pipes poking out of the ground are part of a system to collect methane gas, which is burned off by a flare before it dissipates into the air.

Just below the grass on the already-capped sections, there is 6 inches of topsoil on top of 18 inches of a “rootable” dirt, meaning one porous enough for plants to grow roots. Below that, each section of the landfill was capped with a 18-inch layer of clay so moist that when it dried, it became a hard shell.

A scene from the Larimer County Landfill, near Fort Collins, on July 12, 2018. When the giant trash heap reaches capacity in a few years, where will all the new waste go? (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The landfill receives 1,150 tons of trash per day on average, tracked by scales that weigh customers upon entry and exit. It received a “vertical expansion” 17 years ago, meaning it could grow taller, and extended its life until 2024.

Where will the trash go when the landfill is at capacity?

A landfill owned by Waste Management in Ault has nearly 100 years before it is full. And Larimer County owns property north of Wellington it is considering for its next landfill.

At the current site, the county could build a transfer station, where customers can bring trash and recyclables that are sorted and then transported to other landfills or recycling centers.

It will keep its garbage education center, as well as a household hazardous waste center, where county residents can drop off half-used cans of paint, cleaners and bleach, gasoline, car batteries, aerosols and other liquids that aren’t supposed to end up in the landfill because of the potential to seep into the soil and groundwater.

And thankfully for Betty Robinson, the site plans to keep its row of recycling bins labeled for cardboard, newsprint, glass and plastics.

Robinson, a senior citizen, spent about 15 minutes on a recent summer day unloading bins of sorted recyclables from her hatchback sedan and into their proper containers. The Larimer County resident makes the trip once a month. It’s cheaper, she said, than paying for curbside recycling service.

Landfill operators and recycling advocates wish everyone had her attitude.

“I recycle anything and everything that I can,” Robinson said. “Why waste?”

Betty Robinson collects her recyclables and drives about 4 miles from home to the recycling center near Fort Collins. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...