In the Spotlight
Metro Waste Authority: Making an Environmental Impact
Being proactive and a leader in environmental management practices is a guiding principle for Metro Waste Authority and its service areas.
Formerly Des Moines Area Solid Waste Agency, formed in 1969, Metro Waste Authority (MWA) (Des Moines, IA) was formed as a result of federal legislation banning open burning in dumps and landfills. It is the largest publicly owned solid waste agency in Iowa. An independent government agency formed by the city of Des Moines and 22 surrounding suburbs and towns in central Iowa, MWA has 60 employees and services a population of 475,000—all of Polk County and portions of Jasper, Warren, Dallas and 20 other counties, including MWA’s household hazardous waste facility, where they have satellite facilities and events for those smaller communities. MWA also recently purchased a small private landfill in Perry, IA, just northwest of Des Moines and is now serving most of Dallas County. “Metro Waste Authority is a great success story of regionalization so every community doesn’t have to build a household facility because our regional collection center goes out on regular ‘milk runs’ to pick up household hazardous waste,” says Tom Hadden, Executive Director of MWA.
Because MWA does not have the power to tax, all of the revenue is derived from what they get at the gate at the landfill, the ‘tipping fee’ or anything else that they have at the facilities. “It’s truly an enterprise type of operation, so we have to take a business model approach because we aren’t taxation based,” said Hadden. MWA facilities include:
- MWA Central Office—Built several years ago, the contemporary brick and glass office building is located in downtown Des Moines and provides office space for general MWA staff and administrative departments
- Metro Park East Landfill [MPE]—The award-winning landfill and composting facility, a highly sophisticated, tightly regulated operation receiving approximately 18 percent of the state’s waste annually. It is located on 1,800 acres of land, which includes 500 acres of actual landfill; 800 acres are still being farmed with another 500 acres of restored prairie, woods, and a constructed wetlands Leachate Treatment Facility
- Metro Park West Landfill [MPW]—Formerly known as the North Dallas Sanitary Landfill, located approximately five miles from Perry, IA in Dallas County. Since it has been recently purchased, the facility is currently being upgraded and improved to meet MWA’s environmental standards and best environmental practices as well as other ‘aesthetic’ improvements, including being a ‘good neighbor’ by keeping the gravel road leading into the facility clean and clear of nails, debris, etc.
- Regional Collection Center [RCC]—Household hazardous waste collected at the RCC is consolidated and stored short-term until it is properly disposed of at a licensed hazardous waste facility or recycling center
- Metro Transfer Station [MTS]—Open to pre-approved customers only, MTS consolidates and transports 75 percent of all residential solid waste to the MPE Landfill
- Metro Recycling Center [MRC]—A drop-off recycling site for the surrounding area. Accepts everything that the single stream recycling program accepts, plus metals and tires
- Metro Compost Center [MCC]—MCC accepts yard waste from MWA’s contracted haulers only and is not open to the public. All other yard waste is accepted at the MPE landfill
- Metro Methane Recovery Facility—Together with MidAmerican Energy and Waste Management, MWA turns methane gas into electricity to meet the energy needs of 8,000 to 10,000 homes
Only solid waste, no liquids, is accepted at the landfills, while recyclables are accepted at MRC. The new MRF, Greenstar North America receives all Curb it! single-stream residential recycling materials.
In addition, the Leachate Treatment Facility has been constructed in order to make operations more efficient. The facility is a wetlands system lined with a HDPE liner to reduce the likelihood of contamination or leaks that could affect ground or surface water. It includes:
- 15-acres of constructed wetlands area
- Prairie irrigation area: 7 acres (2 sites of 3.5 acres each)
- Wetlands: 3.5 acres, which includes four wetland cells and the aerated pre-treatment, storage and pre-application lagoons
- Average of 16,000 gallons of leachate produced by the Metro Park East landfill each day
- No leachate or treated effluent reaches groundwater or surface water at our landfill
“This has been a huge financial and environmental improvement, completely inline with our environmental management philosophy of sustainability and preservation of natural resources,” said Hadden.
Surviving the Economy
For MWA, the global economic downturn hit has resulted in a decrease in consumption (less waste going into landfill and therefore, less revenue) and caused an 85 percent drop in the recyclables market just as MWA rolled out the new single stream residential recycling program. It could have been devastating; however, because MWA was staying ahead of the curve by previously downsizing, searching out new revenue streams such as the new shingle recycling program that helped offset the reduction in construction and demolition materials, using equipment longer, choosing the right partners (hauler and MRF) and continuing to look for operating efficiencies and overhead cost reductions, the loss in revenue was far less damaging. “Servicing more than $4 million dollars of debt for the purchase of 76,000 new residential recycling carts financed through a seven-year loan plus an expensive, though effective, communication program to all of metro Des Moines residents made finding markets for our recycled materials crucial to surviving the economic slump,” says Hadden.
Greenstar North America is the largest recycling processor and commodities marketer in the country and Waste Management, the largest collection company in the U.S. Choosing these two professional partners also played a big part in MWA’s successful transition from a five-sort to single stream and the ability to ride above the crashing economy. With recyclable markets slowly on the rise, MWA’s new single stream program has increased overall recycling by 20 percent. With the successful marketing of those materials by Greenstar, revenues are back on track. However, MWA already has their next game plan in hand. Hadden says, “When times are good like this coming year expects to be, we’ll make bigger payments on our cart loan and pay it off quicker, saving interest. Our board has agreed that all of our recycling revenue will go to paying off that loan sooner to erase our debt. When the loan is paid off, then all the recycling revenues go back into our participating member communities.”
Haulers Going to Other Landfills
When Hadden first came on board, tipping rates were increasing significantly every year because MWA was putting in all kinds of new programs and services and meeting environmental standards. Because garbage was going to other landfills, MWA was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to these small surrounding landfills. Consequently, MWA flattened out those increases and contracted with the haulers so they receive a $5 per ton rebate for every ton they brought to the landfill. Hadden says, “The best way I found to control the flow of material was to provide an economic incentive for the waste haulers. It worked and keeps the material coming to us. We can then use that revenue for our programs and services.”
Expanding the Landfill
While other solid waste agencies across the country spend millions trying to site or expand a landfill, MWA did not. Not only do they meet environmental standards, but they also go the extra mile to be good neighbors. This involves the wetlands and prairie buffers, keeping that site clean and the highway clean that leads to the landfill. “That’s being a good neighbor; you make friends with the community that way. I go out of my way to be proactive, especially at our landfills, and making them as environmentally protected and pleasing as possible. When we went to get permitted for expansion to the year 2047, long after I’m gone, we only had two people at the conditional hearing who spoke in opposition to us. It’s usually a very controversial issue which means the room is packed,” Hadden points out. “We work really hard to be good neighbors and we have kept any highly charged controversies of expansion, etc. out of the picture because we constantly try to anticipate those situations by just doing the right thing every day.”
Being Judged by Diversion Only
Iowa landfills used to be judged by diversion only, meaning how much waste you count diverting from a landfill. While that’s not a bad goal, it’s just one of the things a landfill facility should be doing and that doesn’t necessarily mean you are improving the environment if this is all you are doing. “Almost three years ago, MWA worked for a change in state legislation that passed the legislature and was signed into law by the governor. Instead of being judged by the number of tons you divert from the landfill, solid waste facilities are now judged by a holistic approach to protecting the environment including: recycling, household hazardous waste, greenhouse gas, environmental education, composting, and water quality improvements,” says Hadden.
Being proactive and a leader in environmental management practices is a guiding principle for the entire staff at MWA and it goes far beyond the service area in Central Iowa.
One of the biggest challenges MWA faces is the expectation by some who just want to put their leaves on the curb, or a television or appliance and then just assume it will go away without thinking about it or spending any money to have it taken away. There is still a mindset out there that there is no cost to disposal; unfortunately, that is not the case. Hadden says, “We have to start looking at garbage as a resource, not just a waste product. Even when it is a resource, someone still has to pay to have it removed.”
Even though MWA’s transition to single stream this past year was a success with increased participation and customer satisfaction and the lowest contamination rates for any first year single stream introduction (3 to 4 percent), the organization wants to do better. MWA believes the only way to do this is to continue deep and wide communication efforts on the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle. One unique way MWA has started doing this is by drilling down to their youngest and next generation, developing programs and partnerships with schools and even, preschools through their grant programs that award up to $50,000 annually to schools, civic groups and cities in their service area to promote best environmental practices and good land stewardship.
“Our latest innovative teaching program seeded through a MWA grant is called Growing Up Green. It is being developed by MWA’s fulltime educator in cooperation with the Evelyn Davis Early Learning Academy, an inner-city preschool at-risk population, whose students are learning how to become pint-sized land stewards and recyclers throughout the school year,” says Hadden. “The Academy students visit our Ecological Field Station located on our 500-acre restored prairies and wetlands, observing tiny tree frogs and photographing a sea of wild flowers and tall prairie grasses. They and their parents attend evening programs featuring our Raccoon River educators, who teach them what items are accepted recyclables and play games where they practice recycling. Planting their own urban prairie this fall complete with tall grasses and wild flowers that will start blooming in the spring, the Academy students are restoring animal habitat and green space in a concrete filled inner-city neighborhood. The children have a rain barrel and are learning about improving water quality and other positive environmental practices.”
Successful Single-Stream Introduction
MWA has recently had a successful transition from five-sort to a single-stream residential recycling program. In some communities, participation rates zoomed to 90 percent while the service area averaged 72 percent with the lowest contamination rates for a first-year program on record (3 to 4 percent). The transition was a gigantic test of organization and logistics muscle since they delivered 76,000 new automated carts and allowed each resident to choose from two different cart sizes—a 96-gallon or 48-gallon—depending on their storage capacity, size of family and recycling habits. Says Hadden, “Most of the credit for its success goes to Reo Menning, Director of Public Affairs and her communication department, which started their education program a full year ahead of delivering the first new single stream carts. The MWA Board gave her a thumbs-up on the biggest communication budget ever to get the job done and she didn’t disappoint.”
MWA’s city partners were also pleased with the first year results. They all realized significant savings on collection costs, lowered litter and higher customer satisfaction. “We need to continue reminding our residents to keep plastic bags and other unacceptable items out of the recycling bins and lower our contamination rates even further. But overall, everyone is happy with the results,” stresses Hadden.
Constructed Wetlands and Restored Prairies
At a cost of millions, MWA invested in the ‘right’ thing to do by restoring precious native prairie habitat and creates stunning natural buffers around their working landfill. The area also serves as an outdoor classroom for children and adults to learn about good land stewardship and best environmental practices.
Metro Methane Recovery Facility
MWA was one of the early adopters of taking methane gas and generating electricity.
Since 1993, Metro Waste Authority teamed up with Waste Management and MidAmerican Energy to provide a smarter solution to an environmental problem turning methane gas into electricity at their recovery facility. To date, MWA has powered 8,000 to 10,000 homes per day with their energy needs.
At many landfills, gas is released into the atmosphere, wasting a valuable resource and potentially causing an environmental hazard. At MWA, the gas is collected through 125 wells drilled into the Metro Park East landfill and transferred to the power plant that produces more than 6.4 megawatts of electricity per household. More than 3 million standard cubic feet of landfill gas is burned every day, 365 days a year. The methane recovery facility is another environmentally intelligent and sustainable program that helped MWA earn the EPA’s EMS designation along with countless other state and local awards.
Recruiting a New MRF to the Region
The only cost-effective way to make single-stream a reality was by recruiting a top-notch MRF to the region and after a several-month RFP process, MWA’s selection committee recommended Greenstar North America. “Our guidelines were specific to our need for a new, fully-automated, single-stream plant that could handle our projected increased recycling by processing, marketing, and shipping the recyclable materials to large customers across the country,” says Hadden.
Greenstar had those blue chip end user relationships that were vital in MWA’s first year single-stream introduction. During a rough economic market, Greenstar did a great job partnering with them and finding end-users for materials that kept revenue flowing. It was a $4 million dollar investment by Greenstar and they have earned the reputation that preceded them by their performance, willingness to solve problems quickly, and professionalism at every level required to move into a more sustainable recycling program.
Goals and Future Plans
MWA will remain active in investigating new and emerging technologies that will help them continually improve environmental management practices and remain leaders in best environmental practices at all of our facilities and within then communities. Says Hadden, “Waste Management is very close to making a decision to build a second Methane Recovery Facility and that will probably happen within the next year. We’re excited about that and look forward to continuing our partnership with them, Staying involved in our core business has such a big impact on the quality of the natural world we leave our children.”
For more information on Metro Waste Authority, contact Tom Hadden, Executive Director, at (515) 244-0021.
MWA’s administrative staff headquarters located at 300 E. Locust in downtown, Des Moines, IA.
Newly constructed wetlands with restored prairie acres that buffer the MWA’s landfill.
Waste Management, the new collection company for MWA’s single stream residential recycling program, picks up new automated carts in two sizes – 96-gallon and 48-gallon – resident’s choice of size helped increase participation and customer satisfaction.
Students at the MWA’s Eco Science Stewardship Summer Camp at MWA’s Ecology Field Station learn how to be good land stewards.
Educating MWA employees on environmental management principles begins on the first day of employment and continues throughout the year on a regular basis.
Serving a population size of about a half a million, MWA has 22 member communities but a much wider service area that stretches from sprawling suburbs to small rural towns in Central Iowa.
Metro Waste Authority is spending resources ‘drilling down’ to the younger generation to foster good land stewardship, recycling, and other sustainable best environmental practices through their annual $50,000 grant program and bringing students of all ages out to their Ecology Field Station for in-field classrooms at the 500 acre restored wetlands and prairies at MWA’s 1800 acre landfill location east of Des Moines.
Inner-city preschoolers from the Evelyn Davis Early Learning Academy start learning at age 3, the value of recycling and becoming pint-size environmentalists at the MWA Ecology Field Center. MWA is developing a first-in-the state preschool environmental program.
MWA’s 1800 acre Metro Park East landfill with green buffer of 500 acres of constructed wetlands, restored prairies, and 800 acres of field crops.
Images courtesy of Metro Waste Authority.
Spotlight on the Executive: Hiring the Right People, Good Neighbors and Other Successful Strategies
Tom Hadden is about to celebrate his 15th year as the Executive Director of the award-winning Metro Waste Authority and as one of the nation’s acknowledged leaders in the field, he shared his recipe for success gleaned from his years on the hot seat of landfill and waste management. “I believe in hiring the right person for the right job. Because we do so much with so few staff, we need just the right skill sets for a particular position on our team. Once we make the right hire, we provide a good working environmental and opportunities for them to continuously improve. Without quality people, we would not be successful,” said Hadden.
Running lean but not mean, Hadden says he downsized MWA to stabilize tipping fees and maintain their customer base, a strategy that allowed a constant revenue stream to pay for their continual leading edge environmental facility improvements. Hadden credits being a good neighbor, especially around their landfill facilities as one of the major reasons for MWA’s successes over the years, including a recent expansion permit with only two lone voices of opposition, and even they agreed, “MWA was a good neighbor.”
“I was a city manager with an environmental engineering background and an MBA, so when I joined Metro Waste Authority, I was accustomed to working with people and quickly realized they wanted what we wanted—a clean, environmentally regulated, safe, and attractive property—and we’ve worked very hard to do that,” said Hadden. Beyond choosing the right staff and doing the right thing by being good neighbors, Hadden added a few other secrets to his success at MWA, “Keep your board well informed and work closely with them, treat you staff well and listen to them, be transparent and honest with everyone, and continue to do things better, even tiny increments make a better organization.
There are a host of issues facing the industry today, but the first and most important is for solid waste owners to follow established EPA and state regulations that protect the environment as they go about our business of managing landfills and other related facilities. Others include:
- Recognizing the trend of declining revenues from tipping fees (as consumption declines as a result of increased recycling) and successfully finding new revenue streams to support landfills and our solid waste agency services and programs
- Continued education of current customers and focusing more attention and resources targeted to the younger generations
- Creating business recycling options that will allow more businesses of all sizes to start or improve their recycling practices and remove current barriers to recycling, making it more cost-effective to choose recycling over tossing waste into the trash
- Providing outlets for proper household hazardous waste disposal and educating consumers
- Developing markets and finding outlets for recycling construction and demolition materials
- Encouraging renovation and building practices that look to make the best use of materials by preventing waste through smart design, using recycled materials or reusing materials, separating and recycling in the construction process what can be recycled rather than disposed into the landfill, and providing a finished structure that has room for tenants to recycle (i.e., a place for recycling containers and collection)