It doesn’t stink — not really. There’s just the eggy smell of sulfur hovering in a mild breeze. I’m standing with director John Welch atop the Dane County Landfill, which at 110-feet is the height of an 11-story building. Beneath our feet, all of Dane County’s garbage is pressed into layers. Far from the massive, garbage-filled hole of my imaginings, this terrain is remarkably flat, dark as dirt and groomed like freshly raked mulch. Prairie grasses shiver on the horizon. Screeching seagulls carve the cloudless sky. A compactor rolls slowly by like a tank, only adding to the strange sensation that we’re walking on some other planet. I take one squishy step forward, then another. There’s so much more beneath the surface, in so many ways.

“ ‘Dump’ is a four-letter word to us,” says Welch, director of Dane County Department of Waste & Renewables and a University of Wisconsin–Madison civil and environmental engineer with 13 years of experience in the field. This is not a dump, he explains, but a highly engineered sanitary landfill with a complex liner system and stringent environmental control monitoring systems. This landfill is considered to be one of the most innovative in the nation, which captures 1,800 cubic feet of gases per minute and converts them into valuable renewable energy. Even the compactor rolling past is a nearly $1 million machine with GPS that measures vertical movement so the operator can find any pockets that could be further compressed. That’s because space is at a premium, and the landfill is running out of it.

“We have about six to eight years of site length left here,” Welch says; 10 to 13 years, if he gets one last vertical expansion. But it takes an average of 10 years to site a new landfill, so planning the next steps is overdue. By brainstorming ways to keep materials out of the landfill, both in terms of volume and toxicity, Welch can buy more time. His department has found unique ways to do that, from building one of Wisconsin’s only construction and demolition recycling facilities to opening to the public a Clean Sweep hazardous household waste drop-off site six days a week. Next up could be food waste, which accounts for a quarter of all landfill volume — but that’s still a long way off.

“The industry as a whole is shifting away from ‘waste’ toward ‘these are wasted resources,’ ” Welch explains. “How can we divert them back to a better use?”

But even as the experts innovate, it’s never been easier for the rest of us to simply not think about the waste we generate. We wheel our junk to the curb in opaque carts and the trucks take it away — out of sight, out of mind. Recycling has become particularly convenient. No more bagging our own rinsed bottles or binding our own neatly stacked newspapers. Now most of us have the luxury of tossing it all into one cart, including items we’re not all that sure can be recycled.

“We call that ‘wishcyling,’ ” Welch says, smiling — but it’s no joke. Later, I’ll hear about this costly phenomenon from both Pellitteri Waste Systems, which handles all residential city of Madison recycling, and Bryan Johnson, the city of Madison’s recycling coordinator. We think we’re doing the right thing by guessing, but improper recycling damages equipment, contaminates other recyclables and creates waste at the landfill anyway — where it becomes Welch’s problem.

We climb back into his county truck (which, along with nine other landfill vehicles, runs on the compressed natural gas produced here) and Welch points out all of the changes over the past seven years: most notably, 2019’s $29 million biogas plant with an offloading station that’s allowing local businesses to connect to the national pipeline — the only landfill offloading station in the world. Overall, he’s overseen a flurry of projects so innovative and effective they draw visits from other waste management experts from around the country, and Welch says his staff has been asked to speak at every major waste management and recycling conference.

“When you add it all together, there’s not really a landfill in the U.S. that’s doing all the different things we’re doing,” says Welch. “The politicians, the county board and the county executive have been really supportive when we come up with these crazy ideas, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, go do it, let’s see it.’ That’s what the people of Dane County want and expect.”

So with the bar set so high, what comes next? Landfill gas is the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA — and now it’s time to build another one. What should that landfill look like, and where should it go?

To appreciate the possibilities, first we have to understand what happens to our garbage and recycling once it leaves the curb.

Where Does it Go?

In Dane County, garbage and recycling are handled separately. All garbage ends up at the landfill, but the county doesn’t pick it up. Nor does the county process residential recycling. So who collects your garbage and hauls it to the landfill, or collects your recycling for processing elsewhere? That varies by municipality.

By state mandate and Dane County ordinance, every city, town and village decides how to manage its own garbage and recycling — in most cases by contracting with a private hauler. What items residents can recycle depends on the hauler. Neighbors on either side of a municipal line may be able to recycle different things, depending on which hauler has the contract. What’s accepted for recycling in Belleville may be rejected in Black Earth.

“Recycling feels universal, but it’s a regional service,” says the city of Madison’s Bryan Johnson. “And so you really have to be dialed in with who actually picks up your stuff, and what opportunities there are where you live.”

For most city of Madison residents, the Streets Division’s own trucks pick up garbage, then the city contracts with Pellitteri to handle recycling, which is picked up curbside by the city trucks and taken to Pellitteri facilities to be sorted. Outside of Madison, you might have Pellitteri, Waste Management, Town & Country, Advanced Disposal or others — or you might not have pickup at all. (In Vermont Township near Mount Horeb, the board voted several years ago to save its 874 rural taxpayers the expense, and so its residents are on their own for both.)

The majority of Dane County’s residential recycling lands at Pellitteri, specifically its Kipp Street processing facility. The local family business that dates back to 1939 holds the city of Madison contract, as well as that of Middleton, Fitchburg, Sun Prairie and numerous other municipalities. It also contracts with almost half of large employers in the area, including Epic Systems Corp., all three hospitals, West and East Towne malls, Hilldale Shopping Center, American Family Insurance and UW–Madison. That’s a whole lot of waste. In other words, Dane County residents can have a big impact if they recycle correctly — but 18% of Pellitteri’s recycling ends up in the landfill because it can’t be processed, an increase of 8% from the past several years.

“Wishcycling is the main problem,” agrees Danielle Pellitteri, the company’s vice president of sales. “We need to focus on quality over quantity and decreasing contamination — hence the reason for the resources I’ve poured into recycling education this past year.”

Pellitteri has created a series of videos available on its website in hopes of eliminating some of the misconceptions around recycling. Johnson’s department also makes media appearances and educational materials, including a 28-page Recyclopedia. Johnson gets it — it’s complicated.

Take plastic grocery bags, for example. If you’re a residential customer serviced by Pellitteri, you can bundle clean, dry, clear bags into a single bag the size of a basketball, tie it tight and drop it into your recycling bin. But that’s mostly because the city mandated plastic bag recycling in its contract, and so Pellitteri improvised. Most facilities can’t handle them. Plastic bags destroy recycling equipment by shredding and tangling and jamming up the system. To meet the terms of that contract, high-tech Pellitteri — the first waste management company in the state and likely one of the only in the country to invest in cutting-edge robotic sorting arms — still has to employ a human worker to stand on the line and pluck out those grocery bag bundles as they pass. If your hauler can’t take bags, you’re better off recycling them yourself at the grocery store. Or you can repurpose them. Johnson points out that most store-bought garbage bags are made from virgin plastic, so why not use your shopping bags for waste instead?

In the end, all local material that isn’t recyclable (or recycled properly) gets dumped at the Dane County Landfill. Not just residential loads, but everything private businesses throw out, too. This is where the county looks to get creative — and it has.

How the Landfill Works

The Dane County Landfill squats on 200 tightly managed acres of land and airspace on the far east side of Madison, out past the interstate where the Beltline ends. Every day, between 300 and 400 truckloads of garbage rumble in, carrying nearly 700 tons of commercial and residential waste — about 250,000 tons each year. Each of these customers — the city of Madison, Pellitteri and Royal Container Service are among the largest — pays a tipping fee calculated by weight. The majority of that money goes into a county enterprise fund that pays for landfill operations, although $13 per ton goes into an Environmental Management Account at the state level for uses determined by lawmakers and the state budget.

“We’ve never in our history used any tax dollars,” says Welch. What’s more, “what we do with the landfill gas we run as a separate cost center. And that not only pays for itself, but sends millions of dollars back to the general fund every year to help with all the other programs that the county does.”

After weighing in, haulers drive straight to the top of the landfill, dump their garbage and roll out. County staff takes it from there, compacting the waste to about 1,800 pounds per cubic yard. That, combined with decomposition and time, may eventually reduce overall volume by about 10-15%, but that’s it. The footprint of the landfill itself is 112 acres (now at horizontal capacity), plus 10.5 million cubic yards of permitted airspace — 8 million of which are currently filled with garbage.

Other than harvesting the gas, not much else can be done with the waste at this stage — this gigantic mound of garbage won’t ever go anywhere. Much of the staff’s time is spent engineering layered systems that maximize space, protect groundwater and keep deadly gases from traveling through the soil to surrounding homes — the closest of which is 300 feet from the landfill. “It’s really, really important to us that we have good neighbor relations,” Welch says with a smile. Everyone who lives on nearby Highway AB has Welch’s work and personal cell numbers.

The team works in 5- to 15-acre sections at a time, couching the waste in complex layers of clay, thick plastic and drainage sand. Regulators like the Department of Natural Resources require a barrage of testing at nearly 100 monitoring points around the site every month. The testers carry electrical sensors so sophisticated that they can detect pencil point-sized holes in the buried plastic liners.

As each section of the landfill is capped and retired, Welch and his team have planted pollinator-friendly prairie grass — now 100 acres worth — imagining this site in the future as a light recreational green space, maybe with hiking trails or a dog park. But the only other way to make better use of what remains of this space is to reduce the volume of these truckloads in the first place.

“We don’t do traditional recycling,” Welch says. “But we are constantly looking at what’s coming in here and what else we can pull out.”

Innovations at the County Landfill

One of the things that makes the Dane County Landfill special is the number of projects fulfilled over the past seven years and the speed with which the innovations have been executed. Two of the biggest projects address diversion: the Construction and Demolition, or C&D, recycling facility, and the permanent Clean Sweep drop-off building.

Clean Sweep came first, in 2013. Six days a week, any Dane County resident can drop off difficult-to-dispose-of electronics like computer printers and televisions for only $10 per carload. They can also bring hazardous household waste, such as lawn fertilizer and paint thinner. If any of these products are at least half full and are non-toxic and non-hazardous, they go into the adjacent “free store” for residents to take home at no charge. Electronics are sent to a Janesville recycler. Highly flammable solvent bulk is handled in an explosion-proof room with a fresh air supply and exhaust system. This service is unique — in other regions, residents might get a Clean Sweep-style pickup day once a month, or even once a year. But Welch says there’s no other place in Wisconsin with this much availability, and no other facility in the state built for just this purpose.

More recently, in 2017, Welch’s staff decided to tackle construction waste. We’ve all seen those jobsite dumpsters teeming with wood, cardboard, metals and other junk, especially in Dane County, where development is booming. Welch saw literally tons of it every day, just before it went directly into the landfill. Now construction haulers can bring their loads directly to the new C&D recycling facility. Inside, with the help of a conveyor belt magnet for metals, 20 to 25 subcontracted employees hand-sort material by source and size and supervise and operate equipment. The county contracts through Landfill Reduction & Recycling for those workers, filling local jobs that didn’t exist before. Wood is ground and used as landfill cover or sold as wood chips for landscapers and animal bedding for farmers. As a result, in 2018, the C&D center kept 65,000 tons of waste out of the landfill.

Welch’s staff has created various other spots throughout the landfill to keep unnecessary materials out — tires, batteries, bicycles (the bikes go to three area charities: Free Wheel, DreamBikes and Free Bikes 4 Kidz Madison). You can see it for yourself with a landfill tour. They give more than a 150 tours a year — so many that they just invested in a 30-seat bus. (And, yes, it runs on landfill gas.)

But the most recent — and arguably most impressive — project isn’t about diverting garbage, but making the most of it. As organic material decomposes, it emits a harmful mixture of gases (55% methane, 40 to 45% carbon dioxide and 0% to 5% nitrogen). For the past 25 years, Dane County has not only captured that gas, they’ve also leveraged it as a renewable energy source because the landfill happens to be uniquely positioned directly atop a natural gas pipeline. Up until 2018, that meant converting the gas into electricity sold to Madison Gas and Electric — enough to power 4,000 homes 24/7 each year. But as solar and wind power have become dramatically more affordable, demand for this electricity has decreased.

And so, in 2019, the county made a $29 million pivot.

From Trash to Gas

In a massive overhaul that involved Wisconsin manufacturers and created local jobs, the Dane County Landfill converted its electrical generation facility into a biogas plant that makes a vehicle fuel alternative — 3 million gallons a year. This compressed natural gas, or CNG, not only fuels 90 of the county fleet’s vehicles, it also gets sold to Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip. Kwik Trip now has more than 30 stations selling CNG throughout the Midwest. With the money from direct sales of CNG, plus renewable energy credits from the federal government, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi says he expects to recoup the initial $29 million investment in just four years. With $6 billion leaving the state of Wisconsin every year for the purchase of fossil fuels, it seems to be a true game changer — but there’s more.

As the biogas plant was coming to fruition, Parisi couldn’t help but think about the county’s two privately owned, publicly partnered manure digesters. Over the years they’ve helped dairy farmers manage waste and kept dangerous phosphorus out of Madison’s lakes while creating renewable energy — but they, too, had faced a diminishing market for the electricity they generated. These digester companies couldn’t build $29 million biogas plants that happen to connect directly to a national pipeline — but what if they could access this plant?

“So County Executive Parisi, kind of in the middle of the design, said, ‘Hey, can we do this as well?’ ” says Welch. “So we figured out how to make this work.”

“This” is an offloading station right next to the biogas plant. Now, local companies like the ones that run the digesters can also sell their CNG through the pipeline at the Dane County Landfill. No other landfill in the world has one.

“The fact that we were developing this new landfill process at the same time our digesters were facing this challenge really presented a great opportunity,” Parisi says. “Now this has improved the economic model of the digesters so much that we’re hoping to spark even more interest in developing additional digesters across Dane County, which will help greatly in our lake cleanup work.”

After this landfill is at capacity, permanently capped and retired, the biogas production will remain. By law, all buildings can continue their use, so the C&D and Clean Sweep will likely continue as well. But if the residents of Dane County are still going to churn out 250,000 tons of waste — or wasted resources — each year, where will that go? Nobody knows just yet, but one thing is clear.

“We don’t just want to build another landfill,” says Welch, and Parisi agrees.

“Gone are the days where you just dig a big hole and bury everything,” Parisi says. “As we look out 10 years to the time that we’ll need to site a new landfill, we want to be sure that we are on the cutting edge of being environmentally sustainable and innovative.”

What’s Next?

Imagine open green space, maybe some light public trails or a dog park. Picture a collection of private businesses that specialize in reclaiming or converting waste materials, perhaps with a large-scale composter processing organics and food scraps. Maybe a construction manufacturer that can reprocess discarded metals and woods on-site. Resellers and upcyclers like Dane County Habitat ReStore, or other innovative startups doing business alongside the traditional waste management, recycling and biogas production facilities. It’s called a Sustainable Business Park, and they’re building one in Kent County, Michigan.

“When we go to look for another site, it’s going to be a site that will be in use for decades,” says Welch, who has connected with Kent County staff and toured a similar project in Phoenix, Arizona. “The way we manage and handle waste in even 20 years is going to look very different than it does today, so that’s a big question mark. I can’t give you a straight answer, but we want flexibility. We want it to be a very flexible space where you can have almost like an innovation hub or startup space for some of these types of innovative technologies.”

Like Dane County, Kent County was running out of space. Instead of siting 200 new acres adjacent to the current landfill, they instead chose to reimagine the current site as a Sustainable Business Park. Kent County’s goal is to divert 90% of its trash from the landfill by 2030. More globally, this reflects a shift to what’s known as a zero-waste mentality. Instead of focusing on managing end-of-process waste, proponents want to overhaul the system to prevent waste in the first place.

Could we do the same thing here? It certainly feels possible, given the landfill’s track record and Dane County’s commitment to environmental sustainability initiatives. Welch says one of the rare areas where our region falls behind is in food-waste diversion — there simply isn’t a large-scale food-waste processor within a reasonable drive of Madison. Last year the city (and county, which signed on to be the city’s partner) received an EPA grant worth $39,000 to study the feasibility of building a food-scrap biodigester at the landfill, which could lead to curbside food-scrap collection for residents, and reduce landfill volume by as much as a fourth.

“We’re proud of everything we’ve accomplished, and the speed with which it’s been accomplished, and we don’t plan on letting up,” Welch says. “This is something we’re extremely committed to. We believe this reflects the values and the desires of this community, that we be as environmentally responsible as possible. We’re entering a period of time where there’s a lot at stake. We have a strong commitment to doing our part to address climate change at the local level.”

But all of the ongoing innovations aside, Welch says residents themselves remain the “first line of defense.” Once your garbage hits the landfill, nobody is sorting through it after the fact. If you didn’t recycle it in the first place, or bring it yourself to Clean Sweep, or haul it to C&D, that’s it.

That’s why many say adopting the zero-waste philosophy is the ultimate solution. Proponents have added “Rethink” to the original three Rs of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra — and they say it should come first. Think about the products you purchase, what goes into creating them, how far they travel to get to you, how they are packaged and what you will do with them after their usefulness ends. Think about the food system as a whole: who grows it, how much you really need and what you do with what’s left — especially when neighbors are going hungry. Learn your local garbage and recycling rules and take that extra time to rinse out food containers or remove plastic packing tape from cardboard boxes. Don’t just change habits at home, take them to work — many employers are eager to respond with best practices that aid employee retention. And don’t forget to let your local elected officials know what matters to you.

April marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. On April 22, 1970, in what remains the largest civic engagement event in human history, millions of people took to the streets to demand that their governments prioritize environmental protection. One of Earth Day’s founders, Gaylord Nelson, was a proud Wisconsinite. This year as we celebrate Earth Day beyond April 22, we should remember that we are the people. Whether we get a cutting-edge Sustainability Business Park or dig into land doing what we’ve always done, Dane County residents can have a much bigger impact than they may think.

Editor’s Note: At press time, Clean Sweep and the Product Exchange Room were closed to residential customers due to COVID-19. Clean Sweep is still accepting appointments for small businesses and Very Small Quantity Generators, or VSQGs, at this time.

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer and monthly columnist for Madison Magazine.