With at least 20 years of existing capacity at Northwest Indiana landfills -- and room for expansion well beyond that -- there is no need to hit the panic button.
That is the message of the nation's two largest competing waste companies that manage landfills where much of Northwest Indiana's trash makes its final stop.
Some Lake County solid waste officials in the last five years have decried landfills as environmentally unfriendly and not sustainable. That has been part of the push for a commercially unproven trash-to-ethanol facility to divert garbage away from the landfills.
Leading that charge has been Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point, who has championed the trash-to-ethanol proposal. Four years into a contract for a private developer to build such a facility, the plan still lacks financing -- and solid waste officials, including Scheub, are restless.
"If it doesn't work out, we need to keep pursuing other routes than throwing our garbage into the ground," said Scheub, who argues the escalating costs of landfilling garbage and the potential environmental effects demand pursuing other options.
"We need to get into the 21st century, not the 19th century of throwing our garbage in a hole in the ground."
Region landfill operators contend they have the best proven method of dealing with trash -- a method they have vastly improved in the past 30 years.
Landfills in Newton County and near Monticello, where much of Lake County's garbage ends up, have little odor, expel little debris into the surrounding area and have been operating their own waste-to-energy programs fueled by the methane that naturally accumulates within the massive pits of trash, landfill managers contend.
Recycling initiatives already are diverting trash away from the landfills, and those initiatives are growing.
In short, these aren't your grandfather's landfills, they said.
Scent of change
At the Newton County Landfill recently, massive hydraulic lifts picked up entire semitrailers filled with garbage and dumped several tons of nearly every kind of household waste imaginable into the 160-foot-high facility.
The same process was occurring at the Liberty Landfill in Monticello, where nearly 600 tons of Lake County trash is processed daily.
Conventional wisdom would dictate any number of foul aromas should emanate from such a massive mixture of the region's garbage. But on these days -- or any others -- there was little or no smell, outside of the country air of rural Newton and White counties.
Gene Klisiak, district manager of the Liberty Landfill, said much of the odor-control results from intricate engineering and wells that draw away the most common culprit that contributes that putrid smell to fermenting garbage: methane gas.
The gas is the natural byproduct of microscopic organisms that essentially eat and break down the trash.
Thirty years ago, much of that gas would simply be "flared off" -- burned through a series of pilot light-like torches, Klisiak said.
That still happens today, but better technologies keep the smell down and have begun to funnel that methane into a usable product, he said.
Klisiak's landfill, owned and operated by Waste Management, the nation's largest trash hauler and processor, funnels much of that methane into turbine engines that burn the gas to produce electricity.
The Newton County landfill, owned and operated by the nation's second-largest garbage company, Republic Services, funnels much of its methane to fuel the industrial heaters of a nearby egg-carton business.
The Newton County facility is the region's largest landfill, processing about 9,000 tons of trash daily.
Methane monitoring wells spread across the nearly 200-foot-high landfills keep close tabs on methane to ensure Indiana environmental air quality standards are met, operators of the landfills said.
Other drainage pipes along with wells divert and monitor any wastewater within the landfill. At Newton County, some of the wastewater is treated at on-site treatment plants. At the Liberty Landfill, the diverted wastewater, called leach-ate, is sprayed back onto the trash piles and helps break down the garbage into methane.
"We don't just dig holes in the ground and throw trash in there," said Tony Schroeder, division manager at the Newton County landfill. "This is a highly regulated business with standards that need to be followed."
Selling 'air space'
Schroeder also said it is a common misconception that landfills are running out of space.
Under its current plan, the Newton County landfill has enough capacity for the next 20 years, and Schroeder said that timeline can -- and likely will -- grow given the possibility of nearby land acquisitions and the growth of recycling.
Recent visits to the Newton County and Liberty landfills showed the lengths garbage processors go to make use of nearly every empty pocket of space in their in-ground facilities.
Massive industrial vehicles with spiked wheels flatten and compact all the trash almost as soon as it is dumped -- by the semitrailer-full -- into the landfills.
"We're selling air space," Waste Management spokeswoman Lisa Disbrow said as she watched a massive hydraulic lift tip a semitrailer full of garbage into the air and slide its contents into the Liberty Landfill. "And we want to maximize that air space. It's good business."
Disbrow said the Liberty Landfill relies on a "three-to-one" compaction rate, meaning anything that goes into the landfill is smashed down until it is reduced in size by two-thirds.
The landfills also are serious about recycling, not just for the ecological benefits but also for the space it saves for garbage that can't be recycled. More recycling equals a longer life for the landfills, officials at the facilities said.
Disbrow and Klisiak pointed out that five years ago, the Liberty Landfill had an estimated 20 years of capacity left before it would have to be capped and closed. But that 20-year estimate still holds today, largely because of increased recycling and high-tech trash compacting techniques.
Both Waste Management and Republic Services officials agreed evolving regulations and ways of doing business also have made landfills more efficient.
In 1994, there were 138 landfills throughout Indiana, Schroeder said. Now there are 38, and the days of multiple town dumps scattered across several municipalities are over, he said.
Landfills have grown larger and more regionally located.
Disbrow said most landfills today serve an area with a radius of 100 miles or more.
"We serve a radius of 150 miles here," she said.
The Newton County Landfill receives trash from throughout Northwest Indiana and the Chicago metro area, Schroeder said, with about a 50/50 split between those two areas. It serves a radius of between 75 and 80 miles, he said.
Liberty Landfill serves a similar area, with about 15 percent of its trash coming from its Gary transfer station in Lake County.
Disbrow and Schroeder concur anyone believing landfills are merely large holes or tall hillsides filled with trash are mistaken.
"From outside, it looks like a big hill," said Disbrow, staring up at the 200 feet-high peak of the Liberty Landfill. "But a lot of engineering, economics and planning goes into this process."