Our Waste, Our Problem

Cincinnati’s growing waste footprint threatens all attempts to make our community more sustainable. Thankfully, there’s something each of us can each do about it.

Sheila Fields owns a 1.5-gallon trash can, but she doesn’t really need one. The solid waste and recycling coordinator for the city of Covington hasn’t thrown a piece of personal waste in a landfill in about five years.

Not a scrap of food or used paper towel from her kitchen. Not an empty tube of toothpaste or shampoo bottle from her bathroom. Nothing at work or when she goes out. Sure, restaurant servers and grocery store butchers sometimes look at her funny when she hands over a reusable container for leftovers or raw chicken.

“But I don’t care,” says Fields, who is showing me one year of her garbage, which fits in a small closet in her 725-square-foot apartment on Greenup Street.

Over the last decade, Fields has honed a system that involves rinsing and storing her trash and practicing “pay as you throw”—meaning she finds a way to sustainably dispose of each item—even if she must pay to get rid of it. If she can’t find a place to recycle or upcycle an item, she keeps it and hopes to find an alternative someday.

“This way of life is not normal,” says Fields, who grew up in the country and has always had a strong connection to the Earth. “The way everybody else lives, that’s normal.”

By comparison, Americans throw away 4.9 pounds of trash per person every day, according to the most recent data released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Collectively, we tossed 292.4 million tons of unwanted things in the garbage in 2018 (the most recent stats), equivalent to the weight of 3.5 million space shuttles.

Most of that waste (62 percent) ended up in landfills or burned in incinerators. Despite advancements in recycling and the spread of reuse and upcycle movements, the U.S. produced more waste in 2018 than any year in history and is the third-largest producer of trash per capita in the world, behind only Canada and Bulgaria.

If the thought of the waste leaving your hands on a daily basis has you suddenly overwhelmed, Fields says don’t be. “There are so many things we can do,” she says. “We can all start in our kitchens and in our own backyards.”

Rumpke Communications Manager Molly Yeager drives up a steep road built atop the region’s decades-old garbage and explains that landfills, like the Rumpke Sanitary Landfill we’re touring, are highly engineered structures. Everything is regulated, from the air to the sediment ponds to the leachate—the liquid that comes from decomposing trash, which one of her colleagues disgustingly calls “garbage tea.”

“The whole point of this operation is to protect the environment from society’s waste,” says Yeager. “Some people view a landfill as a necessary evil. It shouldn’t be viewed that way. It’s the reality. If the waste didn’t come here, where would it go?”

We arrive at the top of the landfill—the tallest point in Hamilton County, if you count manmade elevations—and our Ford Escape joins a queue of about 25 trucks waiting to dump loads of garbage onto its working face. Trucks come and go 24/7, and each day the site accepts approximately 9,000 tons of waste.

Rumpke accepted more garbage at its Colerain Township, Brown County, and Pendleton County landfills in 2021 than any year before, logging a total of 3.5 million tons.

The company got permission from the state of Ohio to increase its authorized maximum daily waste from 10,000 to 12,500 tons in 2019, and is working on an expansion of the Colerain landfill from 330 acres to 554 acres.

“That’s one of the reasons why we bring people out [for tours],” Yeager says. “We want them to see the volume of waste. There are implications for just throwing everything away.”

How long the expansion will cover our space needs for trash depends a lot on Rumpke customers, says Yeager. “It could be 30 years. It could be 50 years. It could be 100 years. We may own the landfill, but it’s not our waste.”

Rumpke has made a lot of investments in recycling and is dedicated to education, Yeager says. Educating the public goes a long way and clearly rubs off on Rumpke employees. “When I had my first child, we decided to use reusable diapers—cloth diapers verses disposable,” she says, “because I knew 4 percent of what was going into this landfill were disposable diapers.”

Over at the Rumpke material recovery facility in St. Bernard, Education Specialist Anne Gray turns on her microphone and directs those of us on a tour to put on a headset, hard hat, and protective glasses. Sorting 55 tons of trash per hour in order to give it a new use is a noisy and sometimes dangerous operation.

We start at the viewing windows of the tipping floor, a massive room with mounds of material that are loaded onto a conveyor belt system, and the sorting process begins. The main floor is a dusty, dizzying system of conveyors, machines, and people sorting the recyclable material into streams. First cardboard. Then glass. Then paper. Followed by most metals. Cartons, jugs, and aluminum cans are diverted into their own streams.

Each of these items is separated with specialized machinery, maybe an optical scanner or an overhead magnet. In recent years, robots have been added to sort specific items at up to 70 picks per minute. Employees along the line grab objects that can’t be recycled, things thrown in by “wish-cyclers” and those who make no effort to put items in the right cans.

Unwanted objects make the process less efficient, Gray says. Almost daily, plastic shopping bags—which are not recyclable in this system—get caught in equipment, and the whole system is halted while employees remove the bags before they do real damage.

Some things tossed in recycling cans can be dangerous. A baseball showed up at Rumpke’s recycling facility in Columbus, shot off a conveyor, and struck an employee, Gray says. Luckily the person wasn’t badly injured. And later in the day after my tour, a lithium battery caught fire and made its way to the paper bin. Employees extinguished the blaze, but it could have been much worse. Yeager says the recycling center was destroyed by fire in 2012, though investigators never determined how it started.

Over the years, Rumpke’s system has gotten more advanced, adding a glass processing facility in Dayton in 2004 and expanding technology to include new items, like most plastic and paper cups and plastic tubs with lids. (See “Recycling 101” on page 51 for a full tutorial.)

Gray pleads with Rumpke customers to familiarize themselves with the acceptable items. “If you stick to that,” she says, “the system works beautifully.”

A group of girl scouts from Blue Ash peer into big cardboard boxes of plastic silverware and plastic straws on a tour of the Cincinnati Recycling & Reuse Hub in Lower Price Hill. Rumpke doesn’t take them, their guide Carrie Harms explains.

The nonprofit takes many other items not accepted in our region’s curbside recycling programs, such as No. 2 through No. 7 and no-number plastics, denim, shoes, empty oral care product containers, office supplies, and Styrofoam. The Hub sends the items to authorized recyclers as close to Cincinnati as possible. These items can find all sorts of new uses—plastics can become new plastics or diesel fuel, and denim becomes insulation.

The Hub, which opened in April 2021, has diverted 100 tons of materials from landfills. On Thursdays and Saturdays, the nonprofit is open for people to come in with their sorted trash and drop it off or “shop” in a reuse area full of building materials, garden and office supplies, and much more. Shopping is free, though a donation is welcome.

They also take items for a small disposal fee. A broken television, for example, costs $25 if one person can carry it and $35 if it takes two to carry it. They charge $2 per pound for dead batteries, and electronic media (think DVDs and VHS tapes) will cost you $1 per pound to drop off. Car tires are $6 a pop. Find a full list of accepted items on their website.

The Hub has created a new opportunity for our community to recycle more, but there’s much more to its mission, says Harms, who is there almost weekly as a volunteer and serves as secretary of the nonprofit’s board. The Hub wants to increase awareness of consumer habits and harmful environmental consequences.

Last year, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the release of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “a code red for humanity.” The report found that our opportunity to limit the impact of climate change is rapidly narrowing.

Harms says the time has come to think beyond disposable, single-use items such as plastic forks, which take 200 years to break down in a landfill. “Once you’re done with something, does it mean you throw it away,” she asks. “Does it still have value? Can it be used by you or somebody else?”

If you ask Fields, two more “Rs” should be added to the mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. “Rethink and refuse,” she says. “We need smart entrepreneurs to see this sustainability crisis as an opportunity. We were just talking about shampoo bars, which I think are great. Why does shampoo have to come in a single-use plastic bottle?”

Fields says sustainable living shouldn’t be about filling up a huge recycling bin so you have less trash bound for the landfill, but working on ways to keep things out of both. Rethinking for her means using the Bokashi method of composting—the Japanese method can include any organic material, even meat, dairy, and fats. Once every eight weeks or so she buries the composted material on her mother’s land in Kentucky. Refuse means not getting everything she wants all the time and asking others not to give her stuff.

“It’s incredibly inconvenient to live this way,” says Fields, “but it gives me so much satisfaction.”

Sitting in Fields’s kitchen, her Covington colleague Stephanie Bacher, the city’s solid waste and recycling supervisor, talks her through a few options for her annual haul. Bacher says the city can accept some of the industrial composting materials you sometimes get now from restaurants. She likes to test how long it takes for things to break down in her backyard compost.

None of us should give up, Bacher says, because our world is worth the inconvenience. She explains that she got the sustainability bug in middle school in the 1990s when science and political powers joined forces and adopted a series of agreements which reversed damage to the ozone above Antarctica.

“We fixed it as a people, as a culture,” says Bacher. “We did it, and no one got hurt.”

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