Hidden behind the towering pine trees along County Highway K, west of Rhinelander, sits an important place for environmental innovation in Oneida County: the dump.
Landfills have often been the point of no return for unwanted materials, following a basic model of burying trash beneath mounds of dirt.
While that remains true to some extent, Oneida County’s landfill, now more aptly named the solid waste department, is increasingly finding new and creative ways to reuse what is discarded – from imperfect but operable household goods to industrial waste.
Colorful example of effort: dirt
Part of the department’s operations entails selling various mixes of topsoil and compost. The material is infused with decomposing yard waste such as grass and leaves, as well as out-of-date fruits and vegetables from Trig’s and Wal-Mart.
One soil blend, which the department just started to sell in August, is a combination of composted bark and a byproduct of the papermaking process called fibercake.
The paper mill in Rhinelander pays the county to take paper sludge, a substance containing paper fibers and water that initially looks like applesauce, according to Freeman Bennett, the county’s solid waste director who is also the highway commissioner.
To dry the sludge, it is dumped on a hard surface and placed into rows. Every week for 18 months, the sludge is turned over in an aerating process. The result is what Bennett describes as “grayish-colored dirt,” and is then mixed with composted bark the county receives for free from a plywood producer in Tomahawk. The county has trucked in 96,000 pounds of the bark material, according to Bennett.
Use of the fibercake is not new; it used to be mixed with sand, but Bennett said few people were interested in the product in part because of the light color.
But since the county started selling the fibercake-bark mix in August, Bennett said demand has grown. And he said he can see why: he purchased some of the mix to use at his own home.
“It is just truly remarkable how this stuff grows,” Bennett said.
The mix can be used for flowerbeds and topsoil, and has been tested for contaminants and heavy metals, he said.
The department has found other ways to reuse discarded materials, including:
• Selling old telephone posts to use as fences;
• Burning recycled wood to heat the department’s offices;
• Burning recycling oil to heat the building where workers sort recyclables; and
• The Second Story program, in which people can buy used building materials and equipment at discounted rates. One department employee built a chicken coop from Second Story materials, according to Bennett.
A major component of the department’s operations is managing recyclables. The county sells recyclable material to buyers across the country, and earlier this month, a company in China even expressed interest in buying from the county.
Landfill employees pick out recyclable materials from garbage and sort them, such as plastics, aluminum, glass, tin and milk jugs.
That’s important, Bennett said, because the more the county sorts recyclables, the more it can get paid.
“The more you sort, the more you can get for it,” Bennett said.
The recyclable market
A recent load of aluminum cans sold for $22,000, according to Bennett.
But that price stands in stark contrast to just a few years ago on the heels of the country’s economic collapse, when recycling prices nosedived.
“Three years ago we couldn’t give this stuff away,” Brian Dutcher, the solid waste patrol superintendent, said. “It’s a very volatile market.”
Indeed, expenditures exceeded revenues by more than $230,000 in 2010, according to Margie Sorenson, the county’s finance director.
“It was the economy,” Sorenson said. “The recycling market absolutely jumped off a cliff.”
That’s in part because people buy less and consequently produce less garbage when the economy falters, Sorenson said.
But since then, department’s bottom line has seen significant recovery.
In 2011, revenues exceeded expenditures by just under $50,000, and in 2012, revenues exceeded expenditures by about $180,000. Sorenson said she is projecting about $100,000 in revenues over expenditures in 2013.
Earnings from recycling are a major component of the department’s budget, which is almost entirely self-sufficient. The department gets no local tax levy dollars, though it does get some limited state aid.
Despite the county’s ever-growing recycling efforts, garbage is still going in the ground. The department stopped dumping in the Oneida County landfill in 2002 because there was no more room, and has since trucked trash to Lincoln County, according to Bennett.
Still, Bennett said, the department’s efforts to reuse material, sell recyclables and keep waste out of the ground are paying off.
“Everything we can save keeps the tipping fee down,” he said.
Jonathan Anderson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org