Happy Earth Day! I know, I am a week late but isn't everyday supposed to be Earth Day? Sure, we all love that warm feeling we get inside as we acknowledge the need to recycle but what happens next?
The need to recycle is still necessary but our landfills are quickly reaching capacity and it seems very little is being done. I wanted to see where my garbage is going and how we are handling it locally. It is easy to sit back as we watch problems pile up across the globe thinking it is not our problem.
Nothing brings up back to reality than seeing how what we do affects the environment. I am not one to preach for I am as big an offender as the next person when it comes to recycling.
Where does our trash go? Dorchester County uses one landfill, the Oakridge Landfill on Highway 78. The facility, owned and managed by Waste Management, sits just off the highway near Francis Beidler Forest and residential communities.
I had many preconceived notions about landfills before my visit. I think I was expecting to see piles of trash as far as the eye could see while children and wild dogs scavenged for scrapes while ignoring the most ghastly smell known to man. Maybe I have been watching too much television or seeing images of third world countries on the internet but I really felt that is what I would find.
Instead I was met by Russell Hightower, public affairs manager for Waste Management, who gave me a tour and explained how Waste Management is a leader in recycling and uses many of its facilities to produce green energy.
Green energy? Landfills produce methane gas and years ago the gas was burned off but now it is transformed into energy. The Waste Management landfill in Wellford produces 60 percent of the power to the local BMW plant near Spartenburg.
The Oakridge Landfill is also into recycling -- the old building used by Waste Management was donated to Keep Dorchester Beautiful in 2008 instead of being demolished. Hightower calls this the ultimate form of recycling. Instead of destroying the building, they were able to donate it and further its usefulness. The building is used by Keep Dorchester Beautiful to promote recycling in the classroom.
Carolyn Tomlinson, director of recycling and education for Dorchester County, is quick to point out how much she loves her new building. She is full of energy, loves to talk about recycling and believes teaching children about recycling will go along ways in reversing the trend of filling up landfills with recyclable items.
She ushers us into a room filled with supplies. She calls it the Teacher's Closet and fills it with donated items from area businesses to be used by teachers in the classroom. Many take advantage of the closet to buy supplies they would normally pay for out of pocket. The teachers find interesting ways to use old holiday decorations and they stay out of the landfill.
After our visit with Tomlinson is over, I get to see the horror that is the landfill. A landfill is basically a large crater in the ground lined with protective coat before trash is added in a series of cells. Each day, garbage is delivered, compressed and covered with dirt. This process keeps the smell down while keeping the trash from flying away.
"Wind is our enemy and dirt is our friend," Hightower says describing the battle the facility faces everyday as unsecured plastic bags float free around the dump before eventually getting caught in a protective fence around the dump.
The landfill, started in the 80s, not only serves Dorchester County but is also accepting garbage from area counties. Hightower said the landfill is regulated and only allowed to accept so many cubic yards of trash. At the rate it is filling up, the landfill with be full in about 15 years though Waste Management will have to monitor the site for another 20-30 years.
Throughout the tour, Hightower pointed out the positives including working toward state wildlife certification and working closely with the Audubon at Beidler Forest to protect the swamp. He pointed to the lack of smell and how when the landfill is complete it will be converted into a grass covered hill.
The one thing he said that stuck with me though was the amount of recyclable trash mixed in with the rest of the garbage. Stacks of cardboard boxes, plastic bottles and glass populated the landfill. The landfill would be filled at a slower rate if only we recycled.
I will be the first to admit, learning about recycling in Dorchester County takes a bit of work. Upon moving to the area, I was at a loss. No literature or recycling bins were dropped off which is what I was accustomed too while living in Texas. No, I had to ask around and finally I found a website that explained how the process works and what can be recycled. How can we expect those not accustomed to recycling to drop bad habits with no incentive or information?
The process is in place but the uninformed have no idea how to take advantage of curbside pickup or facilities like the Oakbrook Convenience Site on Old Fort Road. After visiting the facility, I realized so much more can be recycled than I thought.
The Oakbrook Convenience Site takes a huge array of goods from oil and batteries to building materials and scrape metal. Employee Daniel Boyd said the facility keeps busy, especially on Saturdays as cars line up to drop off items.
Boyd points to "The Hill" -- an area trucks pull up on and are able to drop large items right into containers -- saying that is his domain. He helps people decipher which items go inwhich bin saying it is important to separate properly so everything, like scrape metal, is shipped off to the right salvage company.
While some head for the hill, others head to another area reserved for plastics, glass and paper. Lines of cars file through that loop stopping at each bin to discard their items.
How much do people recycle? According to the South Carolina Solid Waste Management Annual Report, Dorchester County recycled over 23,000 tons of trash last year. That is a lot of trash kept out of local landfills or dumped into empty lots and rivers. Though that is not a lot compared to the almost 79,000 tons added to landfills, it is a start.
For a couple of years, I lived in the desert where plastic bags from the local Walmart were free to roam where ever the wind carried them. Once I saw a fence covered with bags. At the time it was annoying to think others had no respect for the area but not to long ago, I realized our actions have a greater impact on the environment. Granted, covered fences are an eyesore but where do all the bags, bottles and other waste go that are not caught up in fences and bushes?
Welcome to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Recently, it came to my attention that discarded plastic is accumulating in the Pacific Ocean, forming an floating island of trash roughly twice the size of Texas. Not only is it unbelievable that all this plastic has collected there but the fact that plastic has only been around for about 50 years.
Who is responsible for this? We all are partly responsible. Every time we toss a bag or ignore a bottle on the ground, it has the chance of becoming a part of a garbage patch in the ocean.
How do we solve the problem -- reverse the process like Carolyn Tomlinson who is working for a better tomorrow or Waste Management by turning waste into energy. But mainly, be responsible for our own mess. I know we have a brighter tomorrow just looking at my own children. The other day, my son and I were riding bikes. All of a sudden, he jumped off his bike to pick up a discarded plastic bottle.
Who would have thought my new role model would be 10 years old?
Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at email@example.com.