116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MARION — With the clock ticking on finding long-term solutions for dealing with garbage and trash, an onslaught of debris from the derecho threatens to fill up the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Authority landfill six years earlier than predicted unless programs that divert waste prove successful.
This summer, the Solid Waste Agency is starting to narrow down options for the future on the 360-acre landfill in Marion, which was projected to be filled by June 30, 2044 — 22 years from now. The landfill takes in more than 600 tons of garbage and trash a day. But the increased debris after the derecho adds to the urgency.
It’s likely long term solutions to having a full landfill will include using emerging technology and collaborations with other counties.
The Marion location, at the corner of Highway 13 and County Home Road, has been in operation since the 1970s, but the Cedar Rapids-Linn County Solid Waste Agency was created in 1994 in an agreement between the city and county to provide Linn County with integrated solid waste management options for 50 years.
The agency and its board are working through its “Forward 2044” process to figure out what’s going to be next as each day inches close to the landfill’s last day of operation.
“The board has determined that the need for the Solid Waste Agency should still exist because our agreement also ends in 2044,” communications director Joe Horaney said “But we’re looking at emerging tech. You’re not going to see an apples-to-apples comparison with what you see at our Marion location now.”
The agency also has a yard-waste location near Mount Trashmore in Cedar Rapids.
In February 2021, the agency hired HDR — for $445,810 through this upcoming summer — to evaluate its long-term waste-management options. HDR has worked with the agency before, designing the trails and overlook at the Mount Trashmore landfill after it closed.
The agency and board has been working with HDR to look at various options: thermal, biological, chemical and mechanical options are all being considered. But the agency is looking to narrow down its options starting this summer.
“At this point, everything is still on the table,” Horaney said. “We’re taking a look at what can translate well to Linn County and we’re looking at what is currently being done in the U.S. Is it siting a new landfill or looking at waste transfer stations or an incinerator or mixed-waste processing and composting?”
“The goal is to funnel these scenarios,” Solid Waste Agency Executive Director Karmin McShane said. “Funnel and focus in.”
Regardless, there most likely won’t be one silver bullet to solve the waste issue. It’ll more than likely take a multifaceted approach with multiple new locations of handling waste, Horaney said.
The agency has looked at Lee County in southwest Florida as an example. That county has taken a multi-campus approach of having different locations for its landfill, recycling, waste transferring and mixing in some alternative technology, too. The Lee County authority said it was Florida's top recycling county in 2019, with an 80 percent recycling rate.
“We could transfer waste to Scott County. We could join with Des Moines. We will likely landfill a portion of Linn County’s waste stream somewhere,” McShane said, giving examples. “We will still have fantastic recycling services somewhere. But some of those should be closer to the population.”
The agency and board, made up of representatives from the county and cities of Cedar Rapids and Marion, have been in conversations with officials and the public, holding a public engagement session a couple weeks ago with another coming later this month or in June.
“We’ve been out in communities trying to get people aware of the process,” McShane said. “As a community, we’re all part of this so we need to be engaged to move forward. We’re not sitting here making the garbage. It’s coming to us from everyone.”
The agency says it’s looking at a regional approach. For example, perhaps the Solid Waste Agency ships some of its waste to a neighboring county’s landfill and in return, that county transfers some of its waste to be incinerated. McShane said the agency is also open to public-private partnerships with any organization already using any alternative technology.
“This issue isn’t going to be unique to just Linn County,” McShane added. “We’ve started to engage with other counties and they’re wondering what they’re going to do in 20 years, too.”
But right now, the agency is already working on expanding its waste diversion. Diversion programs, like the recycling center, aim to reduce the amount of solid waste going into the landfill. The programs target waste streams that produce the most tonnage and requires items to be separated at the collection point — meaning consumers play a role, too.
The agency also has a resource recovery center that in part separates household cleaning items, paint and other products that may still be useful to other people. The center also diverts cardboard, plastics, scrap metal and appliances from its landfill.
“A good thing is, we’ve already been diverging,” McShane said. “That’s a big step into the future we’ve taken since the floods of 2008 having all of that debris. It’s about managing the commodities.”
McShane said the agency is not looking for a new landfill. “Now, emerging technology and regionalism is the future. We are in a better spot and more in tune with the options. What can we do with organics? Recyclables? What is fuel?”
The agency asked the city of Marion in summer 2020 to extend the landfill’s capacity through 2074. The city notified the agency in March 2021 that it would not do that.
So the race is on, but McShane and Horaney feel confident as they started the process last year, giving a decadeslong head start.
“That’s why we started so early,” Solid Waste Agency Board Chair and Linn County Supervisor Louie Zumbach said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces. But somewhere in the time frame of a 300-acre landfill being filled up, someone could come up with something more efficient and cost effective.”
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