Top 10 Lessons Kids Can Teach You About the Landfill

posted 6/24/2015

This summer, the landfill is a buzz with wide eyes and curious questions from youth. Binoculars in hand, groups of kids from throughout central Iowa are touring the landfill and preconceived notions of what happens at a landfill, what it looks like, and even what it smells like are being forever transformed.

These potential environmental engineers are learning first-hand what happens to their stuff when they throw it in the garbage.

Enjoy the top ten questions, comments and fun takeaways from youth summer landfill tours:

1. Where are the big mountains of trash?

The first thing the kids learn is that the landfill is not the same as “a dump.” There are no heaps of trash piled everywhere. The landfill is divided into phases, then cells, then smaller sections to maximize space. Kids do see trucks tipping garbage, and bulldozers and compactors spreading waste in thin layers. All of this happens at the “working face,” the area of the landfill where trash is buried that day.

2. You can recycle at the landfill?

Many of the kids are surprised to see that there is a last chance recycling opportunity at the landfill. And it goes well beyond the basics like plastics, paper and cardboard. There is an entire area set aside for recycling appliances, TV’s and scrap metal. Big machines are even on-site grinding shingles and crushing rubble to be recycled.

3. Leche? Doesn’t that mean milk in Spanish? Oh, you said leachate.

Leachate is the “garbage juice” that is produced as water percolates through the waste at the landfill—kind of like coffee is made. The leachate is pumped out and captured, protecting the groundwater. Adults and kids alike tend to agree that leachate is gross.

4. Look, it’s the ‘Where It Should Go’ trucks. I see those trucks all the time.

Those big, Metro Waste Authority semi-trucks with catchy environmental messages are transporting your trash. About 85 percent of residential garbage is first taken to the transfer station, and then loaded into a semi-truck before it’s taken to the landfill.  This process reduces the amount of miles garbage trucks must drive, thus increasing efficiency and reducing greenhouse emissions.

5. Do they really cover up the trash every night?

Yes, at the end of every day the trash is covered with six inches of dirt, tarps or a sprayed-on material made up of recycled newspaper. This is done to help keep the critters away, reduce the smell and keep garbage from blowing around.

6. I could take a nap out here. It’s so peaceful.

Yes, the landfill IS picturesque and the kids take notice. Metro Waste Authority owns about 1,800 acres, but only 500 acres is to be used to landfill garbage. About 800 acres are farmed and 500 acres are woods, prairie and wetlands. Looking out over the prairie from the observation site, which is the highest point in Polk County, is a tour highlight.

7. What’s actually under all that garbage?

This is show and tell time. The kids get to see a mockup of a landfill cell, as it appears during development. It takes many layers to create a sanitary landfill. It starts with compacted clay, then a polyethylene liner, followed by a geotextile mat, pea gravel, and then finally, the trash. These layers, along with collection drains and trenches, keep leachate from getting into the groundwater.

8. Wow. Do you really create energy from garbage?

Yes, at the Metro Park East Landfill, the methane gas produced as garbage decomposes is captured and used for energy. There are two methane recovery facilities on site producing energy for about 11,000 businesses and homes.

9. No souvenirs.

This is one field trip where kids are satisfied to leave without a souvenir for home.

10. What happens when this landfill is full?

The kids offer futuristic solutions like, “Transport it to the moon or Mars.” It’s our hope that new methods, technologies and recycling opportunities will continue to extend the life of the landfill, which is already expected to accept garbage for decades to come.  

And, who knows, maybe one of the budding environmental scientists on a summer landfill tour will invent a future solution for waste disposal.