Earlier this winter, I heard of a local "trash graveyard" - a cliff side where people dumped garbage - from a classmate. In my mind I envisioned a massive trash pile that would make for an excellent story.
But this was in the middle of winter and quite likely anything worth mentioning was buried under several feet of snow. So I put it in the back of my mind.
But as the snow began to melt I decided to revisit the idea, having that that classmate point me in the right direction.
The big, grand trash pile I was looking for wasn’t there, but there was trash. This led me to find out more about trash and how we deal with it here in Duluth.
My search brought me to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD), where I met Karen Anderson, the director of community relations.
When we sat down to talk, Anderson began by saying why waste management in Duluth – and St. Louis County at large – is so important: Because St. Louis River is the largest tributary in Lake Superior on the U.S. side.
This makes the WLSSD a prominent organization in regards to environmental safety.
When the organization was first created in 1971, Lake Superior around the Twin Ports area was suffering from high levels of toxicity from the lake, decades of careless waste removal taking their toll.
Their plant, state-of-the-art back when it was built in 1978, was one of the first to use refuse-derived fuel, where other waste is burned to produce power. The improved quality of the lake today is a testament to WLSSD’s efforts.
When our discussion shifted to the modern day, it also shifted the conversation to a new kind of trash, one that generations past didn’t have to deal with: electronics and appliances.
While the WLSSD still monitors trash disposal for the St. Louis County area, electronics in particular have proved to be a problem in the recent past.
“Most used to treat electronics as normal waste,” said Anderson. “But we want to manage this as a special waste.”
While generally small, electronics are particularly dangerous to throw out because of the many chemicals used in their production. In a 2011 study, thirteen of the top twenty most hazardous substances (based on potential for human exposure and toxicity, rather than the just the most toxic) could be found in electronics.
The WLSSD actually preempted any state ban on the dumping of electronics in landfills in 2001, but that didn’t make the problem go away.
“Back when we first started our program, it cost $96 to recycle an old console TV,” said Anderson. “No one is going to pay that.”
In figures sent by email, the amount of abandoned waste has trended downwards in the last 5 years while the amount of collected waste has generally increase. In 2013, only 59 appliances were found abandoned in WLSSD’s jurisdiction, down from 108 the year before that.
Microwaves are a common improperly disposed item.
“Most people seem to think that because it can fit in their trash can it’s okay to put in there,” said Anderson.
Despite the improvements since the program’s inception, Anderson says there are still problems. General awareness still serves as a major roadblock. People need to keep the environment clean even before it gets too bad.
“Our biggest problem probably is getting people to pay attention before their water shuts off,” said Anderson.
As for me, I can take solace in the fact that I didn’t find a giant pile of trash.