Hate to say this, but WALL-E is not true. Seriously, I was driven all over the Republic Services-run Apex Regional Landfill—about 25 minutes north of Las Vegas—and I didn’t see even one robot, lovelorn or otherwise, handling your trash and biowaste. I did, however, see lots of people-driven machinery, and a lot more smiling faces on the people working that machinery than I’d expected to see. And I witnessed all of this from the cab of a truck whose passenger-side window I kept rolled up for nearly the entire tour.
Some things I learned (and you probably didn’t know): At 2,220 acres, the Apex Landfill is one of the largest in the world, bordered on three sides by government land and on its west side by Interstate 15. Republic has permits to fill in 1,900 of those acres, a process that is expected to take hundreds of years. Believe it or not, this massive trash heap is easy to miss: Steep hills conceal it from the freeway, and if you punch its street address into Google Maps, it’ll take you 20 minutes out of your way into Lincoln County. (Republic is trying to get Google to fix the error.) You can stand outside the landfill’s gates and not see so much as a stray napkin on the ground. If it seems like the landfill is trying to disappear into the landscape, that’s because it is.
“We’re pretty proud of our aesthetics,” says Mark Clinker, general manager of the landfill and my guide. “You cannot find the landfill by following the litter, which is not the case everywhere.” In fact, we don’t encounter any litter for the first 20 minutes of our 90-minute tour.
The landfill is home to several different, symbiotic operations, all of which we encounter before the actual trash. There’s a facility that treats the methane gas coming from pipes burrowed deep into the refuse; it sends the purified methane to a DCO Energy-run power plant that will eventually produce enough electricity to power 9,000 homes. Las Vegas Paving Corporation runs a mining operation from the landfill, extracting sand and gravel for concrete and other construction uses; they literally move mountains, and in the process create more room for trash. And KRD Trucking brings the trash from the transfer stations; Clinker points out a gauntlet of orange cones, where the drivers are expected to practice backing into spaces several times a week. Every inch of the operation has been carefully designed to maximize use of both the land and the stuff we’re dumping onto it.
When we finally do see the trash, it almost feels like an afterthought. A succession of identical trailers tip out their garbage, and an array of earthmovers—each one with a mercifully enclosed cab and filtered air—spread it around. Another truck dumps out the aforementioned pre-treated biowaste, and more movers distribute it finely atop the trash. This layer further enables the trash to settle down and become more compact; Clinker estimates that he’s getting about 2,400 pounds of garbage into every cubic yard. (For the basis of comparison: The density of the trash you drag out to the curb is about 200 pounds to the cubic yard.)
I roll down the window to snap some photos, and for the first time, I feel like I’m at a dump. “That’s biosolids; you’re going to smell that,” says Clinker, chuckling. “Nobody wants to be behind us on Nellis Boulevard, either. Or anywhere. Our drivers get the half-a-peace-sign a lot of times.”
Pungent though it is, the biowaste method is admirable. Republic’s permits allow them only so much space to stack the trash—basically, it’s about 500 feet from the lowest point of excavation to the highest point of waste filling—so the more they can cram in there, the better. A trash “cell” (or dumping area) continues long after it’s topped off and covered with dirt; the gas wells pull methane from the decomposing waste, and the liquids that are produced by this decomposition drain to the bottom of the landfill. There the liquids are captured by a leachate collection system comprised of filter fabric, special rock and a piping network, where they are collected in specially designed sumps, leached away and evaporated.
It’s a remarkably efficient operation that’s only slightly derailed, annoyingly, by one thing: plastic grocery bags. Even the slightest breeze lifts them off the ground and carries them away, necessitating the use of movable fences whose entire purpose is to catch flyaways. “They’re like balloons,” Clinker says, shaking his head. “We tell people to take them back to the grocery store and re-use them, or to use them to pick up after your dogs.”
(Curiously, while many of those grocery bags are now finding their way to Republic’s recycling centers rather than the dump, the amount of trash the Valley produces has stayed constant—about 2.3 million tons annually. Clinker surmises that the Valley’s steadily growing embrace of recycling practices is being matched by a population increase.)
As we roll around the grounds, Clinker delivers a nonstop volley of facts and figures, never once repeating himself: The landfill has been operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since opening in October 1993; many of the roads within the landfill complex are made from recycled asphalt; and our city, perhaps unsurprisingly, throws away a lot of mattresses, which aren’t cost-effective to recycle. What happens to them? They just get buried, along with everything else.
Still, as fascinating as this information is, I’m kind of startled when Clinker nonchalantly mentions that there’s a strain of active bacteria working on Republic’s behalf. See, those landfill gas wells are producing methane at a rate of nearly 2,700 cubic feet per minute, but it’s impure methane; one unfortunate byproduct is hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous and flammable gas that primarily comes from the deteriorating gypsum of drywall board. To remove it and render it nonhazardous, Republic built a special plant at a cost of $7 million that operates using the thiobacillus bacteria, a microorganism that happily eats hydrogen sulfide and metabolizes it into elemental sulfur. (It’s a 15-year-old innovation by Shell Oil and Dutch firm Paques Bio Systems BV, which discovered the bacteria in volcanic ocean rifts.)
Clinker calls the bacteria “the bugs,” and describes in almost-too-exacting detail how they do their jobs: “As they digest the sulfur, they get microscopic pustules on them. Sometimes they drop off, but if the bugs retain them, we’ll send them through a centrifuge and push the elemental sulfur out; that’s basically the stuff you find at the end of a matchstick. Then they go back to work.” In other words, these “bugs” are getting free room and board, an all-you-can-eat buffet and a daily Gravitron ride.
Even without the secret life of bacteria included, the tour is utterly fascinating. I arrived at the landfill expecting to be depressed, disgusted—Oh, man, look at all the stuff we throw out. And it’s true: We really should step up our recycling efforts, maybe give Clinker and his 24/7/365 crew a day off. But there’s renewal happening out there, too. Which is why Clinker doesn’t talk about the next 10 years; he talks about the next hundred, the next thousand. He looks forward to the day when all our junk literally becomes part of the landscape again.
And he’s nothing if not sanguine about his job and his workplace. As we part, I promise to double my own recycling efforts, and he laughs. “Don’t do too much of that,” Clinker says. “I got people I need to keep working here.”