LeMay – Pierce County Refuse, now the wholly-owned subsidiary of Waste Connections but still the company that most residents of Pierce County consider as their garbage collector, has built two new support facilities in Frederickson, a transportation center and a headquarters building.
These spacious structures are far more accommodating than LeMay’s old shop on Pacific Ave in Parkland, and the company is conducting limited public viewings. One such tour was offered to the Frederickson Business Connection, a professional network of entrepreneurs and business owners that the Mountain News is part of, and as a result, we’re able to give you a look inside the shining new glass and steel buildings in the industrial section of Frederickson.
It is also a possible sign that part of the estimated $1.7 billion dollars Pierce County is slated to pay Waste Connections over the next twenty-five years is being invested locally.
Despite the constant presence of LeMay waste haulers heading down Meridian, 304th and Mountain Highway to the Graham landfill, the new headquarters building on 192nd St is relatively small. It has only a modest footprint and is only two stories tall, which may be due to the fact that the actual Waste Connections operation is not that large. Tour guides Ric Thompson and Charlie Maxwell told our group that they only have 85 truck drivers out in the field and about ten managers at the HQ.
The only sizeable department in the building was customer service, and there were about twenty-five employees handling the phone calls as we cruised past their cubicles.
The degree of automation throughout the operation appears to be significant, and includes on-board computers on every vehicle and real-time video camera feeds that record every stop, turn, and barrel pick-up that each garbage truck makes. The system even documents every movement of the driver. This kind of surveillance has already been put to good use to prove Waste Connections free of culpability in several traffic accidents, such a texting driver who recently plowed at full-speed into a garbage truck stopped curbside.
The transportation center lies across a wide tarmac that houses a washing station for the trucks and ample parking for the fleet . This large, enclosed building resembles an airplane hangar and is where the garbage trucks receive routine maintenance, new tires, or a complete rebuild. Oddly, only one truck was in the shop when we toured.
“You should see this place in the evening when the trucks come in,” said Ric. “That’s when the day’s work really begins here.”
Ric also told the group that LeMay has several mobile repair crews who attend to breakdowns out in the field to minimize interruptions to the garbage pick-up schedule.
“If something like a hydraulic line breaks, we want to minimize any spills or other contamination, so we address it right away,” Mr. Thompson said.
Next door to the transportation center is the S&P Recycling facilities, which is a private company, but the building and land are owned by Waste Connections.
As part of the tour we viewed the S&P opertion – the place where the county’s co-mingled recyclables come to be un-mingled. Officials at S&P said they handle about 8,000 tons of recyclable material each month, sorting mostly different types of paper and cardboard, and valuable plastics, which are the tough, hard plastics used in pop bottles and food containers. All this is destined for other companies who convert the goods into source material for manufacturers.
“There’s not much money in recyclables,” acknowledged one official, a view support later by Charlie Maxwell when explaining the exclusion of glass from recycling collections.
“When we had ‘curbside separation,’ with all the different buckets to put the different glass into, along with the plastics and metals, we had only one-third participation,” Maxwell said. “But now that we have co-mingling in the large containers, we have over 90%.”
Maxwell continued and said that glass is not recycled for a variety of reason. First, it tends to break in the recycling process and the resulting glass shards contaminate the accompanying paper goods, dulling the facility’s cutting shears. That adds to the cost of recycling the paper.
In addition, glass has almost no market value. As a result, the costs to recycle glass far outweigh the revenues returned.
Lastly, glass is inert and does not contaminate a landfill.
Glass is now only 2-3% of the waste stream,” Maxwell said. “That’s down from 15% ten to twenty years ago when many food products came in glass containers. Now they come in plastic.”
A surprise addition to the tour was a visit to the yard waste composting facility at the Hidden Valley site on Meridian Ave.
This state-of-the-art operation was originally built by Pierce County in 1998, but has been bought out, first by the LRI consortium of LeMay, Murrey’s Disposal and other private waste haulers, but transferred to Waste Connections control when the later acquired all these smaller companies in 2008.
Grass clippings, woody brush and branches, and downed trees make up the majority of the nearly 200,000 tons of material that gets composted during a 45-day process into a potent soil amendment.
“We sell it all,” said facility manger Don Taylor. “In fact, everything is sold a year in advance.”
Upon approach, one thing is immediately obvious: odor control is a critically important aspect to running a compost facility. Vast amounts of ammonium and sulfur compounds are released from the decomposition of woody products, which presents the operators with a huge challenge.
These noxious odors are one reason why the composting facility is a tightly enclosed structure, with vapor barrier doors and a negative air pressure system to keep the fumes contained indoors.
However, the micro organisms that turn the huge mounds of minced wood chips and grass clippings into dirt are generating temperatures that hover near 185 degrees in the middle of the pile. Along with the heat, water vapor is also released, and as a result, condensation puts the structure into a constant hot, thick haze.
“We generate 5,000-10,000 gallons of condensate a day, here in the peak season,” said Taylor, adding that much of the condensate is added to the pile to maximize decomposition, but the overflow is still significant and he had just ordered two 20,000-gallon mobile storage tanks to capture some of the excess.
Also, generating such temperatures inside a tightly sealed building requires a means of cooling down the pile, which is accomplished by injecting cooler air into the mound. Ironically, the air jets that supply this needed air are also providing the oxygen that drives the decomposition. As a result, there is an elaborate system of air ducts, pumps and filtration devices to regulate the air flow.
However, the air that is vented out of the building also contains the noxious fumes; hence, the outflow ducts are routed into a vast field of chunky wood chips and stumps, which captures the troublesome gases. But these fields of woody fluff are also warm and dry, so they are home to a horde of rodents. As result, extermination programs to control these pests are also a major component of the composting process.
“It’s a lot of work, but we kept 165,000 tons of debris out of the land fill last year,” said Taylor, noting that on the previous Saturday, nearly 800 Pierce County residents came to the composting facility to drop off their grass clippings and shrubby brush.
“We are barely able to keep up,” said Taylor, adding that the yard waste dumping is free for all county residents.
Recognizing the growing need to develop more compositing facilities, Waste Connections is building a new campus in Silver Springs, located in Thurston County.
“It’ll be huge,” said Taylor. “It’s the single biggest capital investment that Waste Connections has ever made.”
When the group came to far end of the composting sheds, where the piles of finshed compost are cooled down awaiting shipment to landscaping crews, Mr. Taylor spoke with obvious pride:
“We get grass in the spring, leaves in the fall, and in the winter we get every Christmas tree in Pierce County, and it all becomes rich, beautiful dirt.”
© 2011 The Mountain News – WA
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