One County’s Trash …

… May be the same county’s treasure

The Apex Regional Landfill is a mystery to most Clark County residents, little more than an exit sign from Interstate 15 north of Las Vegas and a distasteful notion of a wasteful society. “Somewhere back there,” the occasional driver might note as they zip by, “is where all that shit goes.” Out of sight, out of mind.

Which makes the reality of Apex—a sprawling, 2,300-acre landfill tucked out of sight in a valley just off the Interstate—a pleasant surprise. It’s no tourist attraction, but neither is it a shameful open sore. In fact, if someone erased the infrastructure and bulldozed the roads, it would take a trained eye to realize it’s there at all. By the end of the year there’ll be even less reason to be embarrassed by the ignominious distinction of being home to one of the nation’s largest landfills by size, because it will start producing renewable, clean energy.

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Apex takes residential garbage, construction waste, sludge from sewage treatment plants … just about anything except hazardous waste. The “working face”— landfill jargon for the spot where trucks actually disgorge their loads of rubbish—is the only spot where garbage is visible. Otherwise, Apex mimics typical hilly desert topography, just a little smoother. There’s no vegetation on the too-round mountains, but brown dirt isn’t out of place. On a recent visit, the mountains were “littered” with plastic bags blowing off the working face. (If you doubt the humble plastic bag’s ability to ugly up the environment, a visit to Apex, or rural Mexico, will school you.) Hundreds of bags were caught on moveable fences erected around the working face, but hundreds more scurried over the brown hills, blown around like postmodern tumbleweeds.

“I’ve got to apologize,” says Apex general manager Mark Clinker, narrating a tour of his landfill from behind the wheel of a Ford Super Duty pickup. “We have a little litter on the road. The winds have been tremendous.”

Clinker knows his garbage, befitting a man with 30 years in the business. He pulls over to the side of a two-lane dirt road that follows the contours of the trash mountains and points to a large glob of black goo in the distance. “See that black stuff over there? That’s sludge from a county waste treatment plant. It’s darker. Henderson uses a different technique. It’s more brown.”

Another pleasant surprise: how the place smells. It doesn’t stink like you think it would, considering the smell emanating from the garbage can festering in your hot garage between collection days. That’s not to say it doesn’t smell bad, but the odors tend to gather in low spots sheltered from the wind, near the working face. Collected in those nooks and crannies, the smell is sulfurous and gag-inducing, enough to make your eyes sting. Everywhere else it’s just a whiff of something a little off, like the whiff of a gas stove left on in another room.

“It doesn’t magically smell better between your can and here,” Clinker says. “It doesn’t turn into perfume.”

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But the gas behind the odor can have its own sort of sweetness. By the end of the year, Apex will complete a recovered-gas generating plant. Gas produced by decaying trash will be drawn off in wells up to 250-feet deep drilled into the mountains of garbage. The gas will be sucked into 18-to-36-inch pipes, sent to a purifier and then to an onsite generator where it will be burned and converted into electricity. Newly constructed power lines will connect the generator to NV Energy’s power grid.

Republic Services, the owner of Apex, contracted with Energenic, a company that specializes in energy recovery, to build the infrastructure. NV Energy signed a 20-year contract to buy the power that’s produced. The plant will start at about 4 megawatts, but should ultimately be able to ramp up to 11 megawatts, enough to power 6,500 homes. It’s a “green” way of producing energy from gas that would otherwise be burned off in a flare.

“This is just a very positive thing in the landfill business,” Clinker says. “This is a big step in giving back.”

Landfill gas is the result of organic material—food, garden waste, textiles and paper products—being broken down by bacteria present in the garbage and in the soil used to cover it. In modern landfills, this happens anaerobically, or without the presence of oxygen, producing a gas that’s generally 45 to 60 percent methane, and 40 to 60 percent carbon dioxide. Both are powerful greenhouses gases, so larger landfills in the United States have been required by the federal government to capture and burn landfill gas since 1979. Some states regulated landfills before 1979; in any case the days of open pits filled with trash are long gone.

Producing electricity from landfill gas is nothing new; there are about 500 similar projects nationwide, the oldest dating back to the early 1980s. After taking in about 2.5 million tons of trash per year since 1993, Apex only now has enough capacity to make electricity generation economically feasible. Gas production tails off as the bacteria finishes its work; most landfills produce a commercially viable amount of gas for about 20 years. Landfills in wet areas tend to spike gas production quickly and taper off quickly. At Apex the ramp up was slow due to our dry climate, but the output should be steady for a long time.

Clinker compares Apex to a massive construction project he won’t live to see finished—neither will his kids, grandkids or great grandkids. It will take about 250 years to fill the place to capacity at the current rate people throw things away in Southern Nevada. That’s a lot of garbage, and not a pretty thought. And if we can’t quite be proud of this artificial mountain range of shit we’re building out of sight north of the city, at least we can take some solace in the fact that we’re making good use of it.