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Photos by Shaie Williams

At the edge of Amarillo, you’ll find an engineering marvel. Hundreds of the city’s hardest-working people keep it running. They help our homes, schools and businesses run smoothly. Without their efforts, Amarillo would cease to function—probably within the week. This marvel has been around a long time, with plans in place to take care of us for the next 100 years.

We’re speaking of the Solid Waste Processing Plant, otherwise known as Amarillo’s landfill. On a recent, bright winter day, Brick & Elm toured the landfill, getting a behind-the-scenes experience not available to most residents. Our tour guides are Ricky Rivera and Donny Hooper. Rivera is the Solid Waste Superintendent. He’s been with Amarillo for two years, but he worked in Pampa’s Solid Waste department for 18 years before that. 

“He started out as a part-time route driver,” says Hooper, Amarillo’s Managing Director of Public Works. “Every position there is in Solid Waste, he’s done it.” Being able to work in any industry for 20 years is an accomplishment, especially one as challenging as solid waste. “I enjoy it,” Rivera says.

Donny Hooper also has a multi-decade background, and today wears a number of (hard) hats. He oversees solid waste, traffic and traffic engineering, the fleet, facilities, building safety, and the Marshal’s Office. Before joining the city of Amarillo in 2018, he spent more than 20 years alongside Rivera at Pampa’s Department of Public Works. Hooper began overseeing that city’s solid waste management in 2004. 

It’s no stretch to say local residents have thought about trash more over the past few years than they ever had before. Part of it may have been the high-profile—and temporary—residential waste collection restrictions in the summer of 2022 due to staffing challenges. Those have been resolved, thankfully. But recent improvements to the city’s waste management are also notable. For instance, Amarillo’s Solid Waste Collection and Disposal Division’s curbside bulk-trash pickup program has proven enormously popular. Once upon a time, large trash items required begging to borrow a friend’s truck. Worse, junk that wouldn’t fit in the dumpsters often ended up piled in the alley. The city now sends out boom trucks with large grabber claws, ready to take away old mattresses and busted furniture. And after windy days and ice storms, the Solid Waste Division has made it easier to deal with piles of fallen limbs.

Those items end up in the landfill, and Amarillo’s landfill plays a foundational role in the city’s infrastructure. Opened in the 1970s, the landfill’s permitted area covers 662 acres. According to 2022 numbers, it welcomes 830 tons of waste per operating day—that’s equal to the weight of about 277 pickup trucks.

A job that size requires a big team. Amarillo’s Solid Waste Division now employs more than 150 people. “Our route drivers usually get to the office around 5:30 a.m.,” says Hooper. “They’re usually on their routes by 5:45 or 6 a.m.” There are multiple shifts, and drivers run into the night. “We usually finish our residential routes in the afternoon by 3 or 4 p.m., and they’re still processing more at the transfer station,” he adds.

For most residents, these hard-working men and women—and the garbage they collect—remain out of sight and out of mind. You toss something in a dumpster. It disappears, and you never think about it again. Hooper and his team don’t have that luxury, and it’s up to them to keep that trash out of sight. 

So we thought we’d investigate. What happens to, for instance, an Amazon box when we throw it out? Where does it go? How do we know the city’s trash is handled responsibly? And as Amarillo continues to grow—and as we produce more and more trash—can the landfill keep up? 

Garbage In

During the recent holiday season, Amarillo residents received hundreds of thousands of packages in the mail. After opening it, you’re left with a cardboard box. While cardboard is one of the easiest things to recycle in Amarillo, let’s assume you take the easier route and toss the box in your curbside cart or dumpster. Where does the box end up? How does it get there? Perhaps most importantly, how long will it stay there?

First, waste management workers arrive in a side-loading trash truck. Twice a week, they transfer the contents of the dumpster—including your box—into their vehicle. After finishing their rounds, they take that load of municipal solid waste to a transfer station. At the station, the load from one truck joins loads from other trucks. “They push it all into a pit where it’s compacted and loaded onto a semi-truck,” explains Hooper. The semi then takes the trash to the landfill.

At the landfill, Hooper points out a large semi unloading bales of trash. It opens the back end, and compacted trash slowly gets pushed out, like toothpaste from a tube. “That’s one of our transfer trucks. If all our side-loaders came out here, we’d be backed up forever,” Hooper says. The bales of trash drop to the ground.

Then a vehicle right out of Mad Max goes to work. It’s called a landfill compactor, and its operator uses a dozer blade to spread the trash, then massive spiked steel wheels to crush it as much as possible. The compactor back and forth all day long. Garbage gets flattened. Plastic trash bags get ripped to shreds. A flock of gulls, predictably, circles overhead. But the compactor isn’t just moving around randomly. “To compact the trash properly, you’ve got to push it properly, you’ve got to spread it properly,” says Hooper. “There’s a lot of technique involved if you’re going to do it right.” As the spiked wheels crush and tear organic garbage beneath the weight of the machine, the decomposition process begins.

The Climate Effect

Different materials break down at different rates. According to most sources, food items decompose within days or a few months. Paper falls apart in weeks or months. Aluminum can take a century, while some plastics take hundreds of years. Glass might surprise you; it might take thousands or even a million years, if it decomposes at all. That plain Amazon box? It should decompose in about two months—under ideal conditions.

But as we all know, conditions in the Panhandle aren’t always ideal.

“The problem we have with decomposition in the Panhandle,” says Hooper, “is that it’s so dry here. We don’t have near the decomposition rate that you see down south.” Moisture is essential to decay. “We just don’t get the rain to help the process. If it’s been a really wet year, you’ll see stuff breaking down because the process is working,” he says.

In fact, when Hooper was in public works in nearby Pampa in the early 2000s, his team excavated part of a landfill that had been covered since 1976. “You could pull out pieces of newspaper and still read them.” 

When it works, though, the decomposition process still presents challenges. To demonstrate how Amarillo’s Solid Waste Division takes control of the situation, Hooper and Rivera lead us to our next stop on the tour: a colossal hole in the ground.

Brand-New Cell Service

The City of Amarillo announced last summer that it would be expanding the landfill to meet future needs, a $4 million project to, essentially, dig a big new hole in the ground. That hole, officially known as Cell 10, is about 45 or 50 feet deep and covers 23 acres. These cells are the pits used to contain compacted trash, and the entire landfill contains land set aside for 12 cells. Cells 1 and 2 are filled and covered. Cells 3 and 4 are currently in operation. Extensive planning and engineering led to utilizing Cell 10 next. (The landfill cells are named for their location and not their order of use, which makes Cell 10 the landfill’s fifth active cell of a total of 12.)

Excavation of Cell 10 began in earnest in June 2023, but Amarillo’s waste management workers began digging long before. “That’s the best practice for landfills,” says Hooper. “You always want to borrow from your next cell to cover your existing cells.”

Each night, Texas regulations require landfills to cover up that day’s shredded and compacted trash with 6 inches of dirt. “We also have an ADC, or alternate daily cover. It’s like a paper mache spray made from recycled paper and cardboard. It’s fire retardant, and it keeps everything from blowing away,” Hooper says.

As any Amarillo resident would understand, wind provides a major challenge to landfill management. “I have friends all over the state in the solid waste business who ask, ‘Why do y’all worry about wind so much?’ Because they don’t have to,” explains Hooper. “In the Austin area, it’s no big deal. They set a dollar bill on the hood of a car and it won’t blow away. Out here, just wait 20 minutes and someone in Canadian finds that dollar bill.”

To help combat the problem, landfill workers use portable landfill fences, also known as litter fences. According to Hooper, “We move those fences to match the wind and catch the windblown trash. The higher we get on a cell, the harder it is to control that. With a new cell that’s down low, wind is much easier to handle.”

Amarillo residents can help, too. “The biggest thing that helps us,” says Hooper, “is when you bag your trash. It’s actually in the ordinance that your trash has to be bagged when it goes into the dumpsters. Because during the process of going into the trash trucks and to the transfer station—anytime that it makes a move and there’s wind—everything loose is gone. Then people complain because their alleys are full of trash. When people bag their trash, that helps us big time.”

Collecting and Monitoring

There’s no trash yet in the new Cell 10, which is still being readied for use. Pipes remain visible at the bottom. The pipes function as a leachate collection system. In solid waste management, a leachate is any liquid containing possibly harmful materials “leached” from garbage in a landfill. 

“We have water monitoring wells all the way around the cells,” explains Hooper. “We send those tests quarterly to TCEQ, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Just to show them that everything’s clear.”

Liquids aren’t the only issue. “We have another collection system that collects all the methane gas in these cells,” says Hooper. “That’s how we know we’re getting decomposition, because it creates a lot of gas. That methane is sent over to a flare and gets burned off.” TCEQ requires unused methane be flared off, reducing its environmental impact.  

Could the methane be used for anything productive? “That’s a question that we get all the time,” says Hooper. “The problem is getting it in a pipeline to get it sold. We’ve had several groups come in and analyze that. For now, no one’s bringing a new pipeline to the landfill.” The costs currently outweigh the possible benefits.

A crucial layer of protection rests below the leachate and methane collection systems and enveloping the entire cell: the geo-synthetic clay liner, a type of flexible membrane liner. Hooper explains, “It’s a bentonite clay layer that goes down on top of the subsoil. We cover the liner with a protective layer of dirt to protect it from getting punctured.” Bentonite clay absorbs liquids as it expands to many times its original size, sealing everything away inside the cells of the landfill. 

Planning for the Future

As construction nears completion on the landfill’s fifth active cell, questions linger. How long will Cell 10 last? As Amarillo continues to grow, can the landfill keep up? Donny Hooper says we don’t need to worry. “We don’t have a growth component that bothers us out here. We’re big enough to handle the waste that’s coming.” In fact, he says we’re already taking waste from neighboring towns who contract with Amarillo because they don’t have their own landfills. Based on its active and unused cells, Amarillo’s current landfill should remain viable for at least 100 years.

Even with that buffer, the Solid Waste Division diverts everything it can from the cells. For instance, they use composting to break down some of our city’s waste. “We bring items from our brush sites,” says Hooper, “and contractors know how to bring in trees and shrubs. It has to be separated when it comes out to the landfill. If a load is mixed and there are trees in it along with trash and tires, it has to go into a cell. We educate people to divert as much waste as we can.”

What about expanding recycling options? “We get asked all the time, ‘Why do we not have a full-fledged recycling program here?’ And it’s simply because of the cost,” he says. “You think about how many routes we run with trash trucks. We would have to run those same routes with recycling trucks. We’re not opposed to doing it, but it would basically double the cost. It’s $250,000 a truck and you’re going to have to buy 40 trucks. It’s a lot of money, it’s a lot of upfront investment.”

That’s not to say that the city doesn’t offer recycling options. Remember our cardboard box from earlier? Hooper would rather it be recycled. “We offer cardboard recycling locations all over town,” says Hooper. “We’ve got a great partnership with KB Recycling. If all of that cardboard went in [the landfill], we’d fill up that much faster. Then we’ve got to build another cell. Anything we can keep out of here helps us. Using the cardboard recycling locations is a great option people can take advantage of easily.” 

In an efficiently managed city, residential trash probably should be “out of sight and out of mind.” But that’s only the case because a team of people—people like Hooper, Rivera and 150 other solid waste employees—look at it and think about it every day of the year. They’re experts at talking trash and the city is better for it. 

Tired of Tires

When asked what the people of Amarillo should stop putting in their dumpsters, Hooper instantly provides an answer: tires! Tires take up extra space, don’t break down easily, and contain heavy metals. Even the massive landfill compactor can’t do anything about whole tires.

“When a load comes in at the transfer station, there’s a worker who literally has to walk out into that and pull tires out of it,” he says. “We have to take tires and separate them from the waste stream.” If your tire repair place won’t dispose of old tires for you, they can be delivered directly to the landfill. Just don’t toss them in the dumpster.

Author

  • Ryan McSwain

    Ryan is the author of the horror thriller Monsters All the Way Down and the superhero meta fantasy Four Color Bleed. Alongside his fiction, he’s written for all the best industries in Texas. With his wife and two children, he’s happy to call Amarillo home. You can find him at ryanmcswain.com.