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The more you give, the more he takes

Holiday rush starts now for Chesco landfill director.

A compactor works on a section of the landfill, which has been expanded four times since Chester County acquired it in 1984 and is expected to reach its permitted capacity in 2013.
A compactor works on a section of the landfill, which has been expanded four times since Chester County acquired it in 1984 and is expected to reach its permitted capacity in 2013.Read more

Come this morning, when most folks start discarding their Christmas wrappings and boxes, it will mean more business for Bob Watts.

He's at the far end of society's waste stream, and from his perch in Chester County atop a mountain of trash, he can tell the time of year without looking at the calendar, or gauge the health of the economy without consulting retail sales figures.

"We usually see a nice increase in waste each year," Watts says, "but this year it's been flat and slightly down. I think people are buying less stuff and recycling more."

As executive director of the Chester County Solid Waste Authority, Watts oversees the Lanchester Landfill. Straddling the border of Lancaster and Chester Counties near the village of Honey Brook, it accepts refuse from 49 municipalities in densely populated northern and eastern Chester County. It serves 80 percent of the county's population, or about 375,000 people, who generate two-thirds of the county's waste - around 316,000 tons a year.

Every weekday, about 250 trucks wend their way up its slopes.

Other suburban counties, including Delaware and Montgomery, use "resource recovery plants," also known as trash-to-steam, to handle much of their solid waste.

Not Chester County. After the holidays, the volume of trash at the landfill jumps about 15 percent, Watts says, as people throw out gift wrapping and packaging - and a couple of hundred tons of Christmas trees. Waste volume drops in February and March, surges with the warm weather in the spring, subsides in the summer (when folks are on vacation), and rises again in the fall.

Watts, 54, is a prodigious trash-talker, not in the flamboyant in-your-face fashion of a professional athlete, but in the deliberate, earnest, low-key manner of a seasoned environmental engineer passionate about the science of waste management. If you seek a learned disquisition on flow control, he's your man. He has the cerebral air of a college professor, yet he can maneuver a bulldozer with the finesse of a neurosurgeon. He strives valiantly to be the lovable face of an unloved, but necessary, public utility.

"We know we're not wanted," Watts says. "To continue to expand and exist, we have to be as invisible as we can be. That's more challenging when you're in an area as densely populated as this."

Of Lanchester's 600 acres, only about 160 are landfill, of which 100 have been closed out and capped. The rest of the property is open fields and wooded buffer.

The Welsh Mountain ridge that the landfill straddles has loomed as part of the terrain for eons, but three decades of accumulated rubbish have added 80 feet to its height. The 1,100-foot summit has been turned into a scenic overlook, featuring picnic pavilions, a playground, and a windmill that powers a wireless-Internet antenna.

The amenities reflect Watts' determination to domesticate and beautify an inherently unlovely place. Wherever trash is not supposed to be, everything is tidy, orderly, conspicuously clean. His crews regularly patrol for litter, including on surrounding roads and highways. Last year, Lanchester won the Solid Waste Association of North America's silver award for superior landfill management.

Watts has been at Lanchester since 1999, and in waste management for 23 years. A native of Warrington, Bucks County, he began caring about the environment after reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as a schoolboy.

After dropping out of college, Watts flirted with opening a ski shop, then did construction work for six years, operating heavy equipment. An environmental-studies course at Temple University's night school sparked an interest that led to a new career. After earning degrees in environmental and civil engineering, he managed several private and public landfills in New England.

His dual interests - the environment and landfills - make him professionally conflicted. On the one hand, the more trash, the more money the landfill makes. (The tipping fee: $58 a ton.) That revenue pays for the county's recycling program and enriches the county's general fund by $1 million annually. On the other hand, the more trash, the sooner the landfill runs out of room. Expanded four times since the county acquired it in 1984, Lanchester is expected to reach its permitted capacity in 2013.

So the name of the game is maximizing space. Says Watts: "The better we can utilize space, the longer the landfill can last and the more profitable we'll be."

If trash were dumped at Lanchester the way it's picked up at the curb - relatively fluffy and uncondensed - the average daily haul would cover a football field to a depth of six feet, Watts estimates.

But hydraulic compactors on trash trucks reduce the volume of by half. At the landfill, the trash is compressed by half again by 60-ton compactors with spiked wheels that run over it at least five times. Result: the newly deposited layer of crushed trash on that hypothetical football field would be only 11 inches deep.

A global positioning system tells compactor operators how and where to distribute the trash for maximum compression. That innovation alone has increased density 10 to 15 percent, Watts says, and extended the life of the landfill by at least a year.

Landfill practices have changed radically since the mid-1950s. Back then, trash was dumped, without license or permit, in a former sand quarry at the site. Piled up during the week, it was burned on Saturday.

Today, to prevent groundwater contamination, the base is covered with an impermeable four-layer liner of tough polyethylene, each layer about as thick as heavy-duty linoleum. When the site is full, the top is capped with another impermeable membrane, two feet of insulating and drainage-promoting subsoil, and eight inches of topsoil.

The slopes are then seeded, and the meadowlike grass is mowed once a year.

Watts, who foresees a day when the closed landfall becomes a public park, with biking and hiking trails and perhaps even a long slide, has already turned it into a zoo.

A herd of 60 sheep and goats helps control the weeds and adds a touch of pastoral charm. He has also brought in pheasants and wild turkeys. He talks of importing buffalo and - only half-jokingly - a tribe of monkeys to climb through the trees and retrieve plastic shopping bags that, despite a 40-foot-high mesh fence, sail off in the wind and get snagged in twigs and branches (a chronic aggravation).

Needless to say, Watts is an ardent advocate of reuse and recycling. The landfill has drop-off containers for plastic, metal, glass and paper.

"Twenty years ago, the working face of landfills was newspapers," Watts says. Now nearly all newsprint is recycled. "That's been one of the most visible and dramatic changes." Scrap lumber and construction waste are ground into wood chips that are burned to generate electricity or processed into landscaping mulch.

And about 140 wells drilled into the landfill collect methane gas produced by decomposing trash. The vapors are sucked out at 3,000 cubic feet per minute. At an on-site plant operated by Granger Energy, the methane is dried, filtered and compressed, and sent via a 13-mile pipeline to fuel boilers at four industrial plants in Lancaster County.

Waste-management professionals talk about "diversion rates" - the amount of trash diverted from landfills through recycling or incineration in a waste-to-energy plant. A town in New Hampshire has achieved a phenomenal diversion rate of 99 percent, Watts marvels. In other words, only 1 percent of its trash goes to a landfill.

Chester County's diversion rate: 35 percent. Could it ever achieve 99 percent?

What a dream, Watts muses. And what a legacy! Then the environmental engineer pauses, returns to reality. "One percent of half a million tons," he observes soberly, "is still a significant amount of waste."