The View From Teton County

Aug. 23, 2013

By Heather OverholserMark McClain, and Keith Gordon

Teton County’s main landfill, at Horsethief Canyon, just south of the town of Jackson, was closed in 1989 and is the current location of the transfer station. There used to be some small local disposal sites throughout the county; these have now been closed as well.

The county’s landfill-bound waste is now trucked to a landfill near Idaho Falls, ID. Teton County’s recyclables and household hazardous waste are processed at a separate facility south of Jackson, but about 3 miles north of the old landfill and transfer station. Landfill-bound waste is all processed at the transfer station.

All inbound traffic to the transfer station is processed at a scale house located on the access road. Inbound traffic proceeds counter-clockwise; commercial and self-haul traffic is positioned to be directed for back-in to the tipping floor. Empty transfer trailers circulate around the backing apron to the tunnel entrance ramp on the north side of the transfer facility main building and are weighed out at the scale house. Loads with organics and other bulk divertible materials (e.g., used appliances) are directed to the designated areas east of the transfer station.

Teton County is planning the upgrade of its transfer station (constructed in 1989) that is now too small and at the end of its functional lifespan. Like much of the world, Teton County is working on ways to reduce the amount of waste that the municipality generates, while also increasing its diversion rate, now that it has become necessary to haul 100 miles one way.

What gives Teton County a chance to glimpse the future of MSW lies in the constraints and opportunities that form the community’s reality: sparse population and great distances.

With just 21,000 residents, many of the MSW practices that work for larger, denser communities are not practical in Teton County. This means that there is no system for widespread residential curbside recycling collection, and no automated recyclables sorting. Although it is difficult to get compost to “cook” in Wyoming’s cold winters, the relatively small volume of organic waste collected in the county means that it is not currently practical to introduce enclosed composting.

About half the county’s population lives in the county seat of Jackson, perhaps better known for its location in the Jackson Hole valley, a world-famous mountain resort area. With the remainder of the population in smaller communities and in dispersed dwellings, the recycling program has been entirely voluntary.

The remote location of the county poses additional constraints on the county’s diversion program; much of the recyclable waste must be trucked to Salt Lake City, Denver, or the West Coast. Taking waste to the landfill in Idaho involves a 200-mile round trip, much of it along narrow mountain roads that are particularly challenging in winter.

For these reasons, Teton County is experiencing, to a greater degree, the pressures all municipalities face to reduce their transportation costs along with wear and tear on their roads and their carbon footprints, too. Steps that Teton County takes to reduce its need to haul waste can prove applicable elsewhere, particularly for remote and rural settings.

There are few options for landfill locations. Due to its mountains and abundant ranchland, Teton County may look like the last of the wide-open spaces. The fact is that only some 3% of the county’s territory is in private hands-leaving few options for landfill locations. High demand and scarcity contribute to the extremely high prices for land. The county contains all of Grand Teton National Park and close to half of the total area of Yellowstone National Park.

Because obtaining new landfill space would be difficult, the county’s leadership is keenly aware that the choices made now regarding waste diversion and disposal will be decisions with which the county must live for decades to come. Teton County is already living the land-constrained future reality faced by increasing numbers of other jurisdictions-constraints due to stakeholder issues, environmental concerns, or simply the difficulty in obtaining permits for new and expanded landfill capacity.

Solutions With Flexibility to Meet Future Needs
With a 1000% increase in population over the past 50 years, Teton is one of the fastest-growing areas in Wyoming. Many of the newcomers are high-income individuals, and Teton County is now one of the highest-income counties in the USA-which has its advantages as there is a solid tax base with which to fund infrastructure developments.

In 2012, the local MSW agency, Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling began work with the global engineering/environmental firm Golder Associates Inc., in cooperation with Solid Waste Professionals of Wyoming and Gordon Environmental Inc. of Bernalillo NM to develop plans to meet the future MSW management needs of Teton County.

Golder Associates led the development of the closure and post-closure plans for the Horsethief Canyon Landfill, which ceased accepting waste in 1989 in conjunction with the transfer operations that started that same year. This closed, unlined landfill is in a Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality compliance program to address potential groundwater contamination issues.

Gordon Environmental has been tasked with evaluating the solid waste transfer operation, with a focus on recommending potential infrastructure and operational improvements.

The transfer facility, which may well have been adequate for the county’s waste volumes when it was built 25 years ago, was likely processing 50 tons per day in its early years. As the population has increased, the current waste volume processed at the transfer station can be up to 150 tons per day.

That may seem like a lot of waste for just 21,000 people-but the population of local residents is dwarfed by some three million visitors who come to enjoy the local attractions each year. These visitors result in a significant flow of waste from hotels, restaurants, and gas stations, much of it being discarded surplus food.

Some of the solutions being developed by Teton County, supported by technical services and advice from Golder Associates Inc. and from Gordon Environmental Inc., are described below.

Reducing the Volume of Waste Through Education
Teton County’s first line of approach to MSW management has been to find imaginative, effective ways to cut down on the amount of waste generated. This is not something that shows up in the diversion rate, but when waste bound for the landfill is decreasing, without a corresponding increase in the flow of recyclables, it seems likely that the county’s “reduction-oriented” actions are having some effect.

These actions emphasize education, starting with school children-particularly because they can be so powerful at influencing their parents and because they are the adults of tomorrow. An example of this is the “One Less Bottle” program, which involved giving a stainless-steel water bottle to every school child in the county as a way to reduce the flow of disposable water bottles. To support this program, a local videographer was commissioned to prepare a video that was shown in classrooms.

For the population at large, Teton County strives annually for some variety in its message. One year, for example, TCISWR recruited well-known local celebrities to talk about how the 3Rs show up in their lives-and their ideas were presented in posters, newspaper and television ads.

Teton County also reaches out to the flood of tourists to present the community as one that is sustainability minded. This has included a pilot project with a local hotel, in which a local artist was commissioned to design a logo that was printed on some reusable shopping bags, available for hotel guests to use and then take home, if they wished, the cost being added to their hotel bill.

This indicates that well-developed education programs for school-age children and adults can bear fruit in greater motivation to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.”

The TCISWR transfer station and scale house

Informing and Gaining Buy-in From Local Officials
TCISWR has been diligent about building support from elected county commissioners, through keeping them informed about the challenges, issues, opportunities, and trends regarding solid waste. The commissioners accept that solid waste is something that the county will have to deal with forever and have prioritized the reduction of waste flow to the landfill.

Developing plans in cooperation with elected officials helps increase the chances that those plans get funded and implemented.

Incentives and Penalties
TCISWR uses tipping fees not only to fund operations, but also as a means of encouraging people to act in responsible ways when it comes to solid waste.

Tipping fees will be increased from $100 per ton for landfill-bound MSW to $110 per ton as of July 1, 2013. Lower rates for diverted waste encourage sorting of waste for recyclables and organics. While the diversion rate of 36% is commendable for a small community with an entirely voluntary program, the county’s objective is to increase diversion by 10 to 20 percentage points in the next few years.

Part of that increased diversion is expected to come from the addition of foodwaste to the organics diversion program. Given the many restaurants and other food-service operations in the county, the volume of foodwaste is significantly higher than it would be for other communities the size of Teton County. Organics are heavy and expensive to transport. Tipping fees for organics, which have been and remain at $70 per ton, encourage landscapers and contractors to sort their waste diligently.

The county also encourages the sorting of waste by charging additional fees to anyone who brings in an unsorted load that includes waste materials that could be diverted. For example, a contractor who shows up with a rolloff container containing scrap metal, cardboard and concrete plus landfill-bound trash is charged a $200 sort fee.

One of the county’s priorities is to encourage good practices by keeping disposal fees for recyclables low-quite a challenge, given the distance to markets and the relatively small volume of recyclables produced.

In some places, high disposal fees might result in a problem with illegal roadside dumping. This is not a serious problem in Teton County, due largely to a population that is socially and environmentally conscious, whose members agree that it is important to protect the environment and the natural beauty of the place. Having relatively few lonely, deserted roads may also play a part in deterring any roadside “midnight waste dumping” activity.

Another type of incentive the county has developed to encourage environmental stewardship by businesses is the 3R program. Businesses that want recognition for environmental sustainability can complete an online survey [] about their waste-management practices, and if they have a passing grade, can apply to have a “3R Business Leader” sticker for their window, which they can also use in advertising. There is a specific program for restaurants as well.

A major factor in the county’s decisions is leaving options open for the future. For example, there may come a time when waste-handling technology can provide automated recyclables sorting, enclosed composting, and landfill-based diversion at a scale that is economically suitable for small communities.

Teton County is in the process of setting the ambitious goal of zero waste. Steps taken today are helping to leave the door open for that destination to be a reality in future.

Author’s Bio: Heather Overholser is division chief for Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and -Recycling, based in Jackson, WY.
Author’s Bio: Mark McClain, PE, is principal and senior consultant with Golder Associates, based in Lakewood, CO.
Author’s Bio: Keith Gordon, PE, is president of Gordon Environmental Inc., of Bernalillo, NM.

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