Ever wonder where your trash goes? Highway 90, for now

Large bulldozers with special spiked wheels were busy compacting trash into the Solid Waste Authority's 260-acre landfill on Highway 90 Wednesday.

The bulldozers are equipped with GPS and computers that measure when the trash can't be compacted anymore. Then it's covered by a layer of dirt. The dirt is removed every time more trash is put on top.

The Solid Waste Authority currently only has capacity to take in trash until 2040. jbell@thesunnews.com Josh Bell

"The more compaction we can get, the more materials we can put in here," said Director of Operations Mike Bessant.

And fitting more trash into the landfill is important. The landfill only has capacity for household waste through 2040.

From the top of the landfill's hill, smoke from a controlled burn in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve could be seen rising in the distance. Seagulls flew around the odorous dump while a bald eagle perched on a berm nearby. Trucks and vans drove up and down the roads paved with glass, and pipes sticking out of the landfill showed the locations of gas mines that harvest methane used to generate electricity that the SWA sells to Santee Cooper.

"We actually pull methane gas out of the landfill and we’re putting in a new system now where we generate electricity for about 2,100 homes," said Bessant. "We were the first ones in the state of South Carolina to do it with a partnership with Santee Cooper."

The trash is sealed in on the top and bottom with special tarps before sections are covered in dirt and closed off for good.

A $1.2 million bulldozer equiped with computers and GPS compacts trash at the Solid Waste Authority's landfill on Highway 90. jbell@thesunnews.com Josh Bell

The Solid Waste Authority doesn't get any tax dollars, and relies on tipping fees going in and out, which anyone bringing in garbage has to pay.

"Everything that comes in crosses these scales," said Executive Director Danny Knight. "It’s like the cash register. We don’t get any tax money. Everything is a tipping fee.”

The Solid Waste Authority is pretty self-sufficient.

Waste from construction and demolition is sorted, with scrap metal, wood and concrete separated out. Scrap metal is recycled, as are batteries and household chemicals.

Wood is ground up, with some dyed black, brown and red for landscaping mulch and some is used as boiler fuel. Concrete is ground up. Food scraps and yard waste are turned into compost.

And then there's the Materials Recovery Facility, also known as the MRF. Basically, it's the recycling facility.

The Materials Recovery Center generated around $5 million in revenue for the Solid Waste Authority last year. jbell@thesunnews.com Josh Bell

The authority made $5 million in revenue last year from recycling.

"We use it or we sell it," said Bessant.

They recycle glass, TVs and electronics, paper, cardboard, scrap steel, aluminum and different types of plastics. They also take in recycling from Charleston. What they can't take in gets sent back to Charleston at no cost to the Solid Waste Authority, and no trash from Charleston ends up in Horry County's landfill.

The county and municipalities pay $600,000 per year to get rid of just TVs, said Bessant.

Recyclable materials are brought into the MRF from the county's 24 recycling centers as well as the municipalities that do curbside recycling pickup. Those include Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Conway, Surfside and Briarcliffe Acres.

The colored plastic sells for around $ 750 per ton. Each bale weighs around 1,600 pounds. jbell@thesunnews.com Josh Bell

Once at the facility, all the recycling is piled up against the wall and pushed onto a conveyer belt. Then workers, with the help of machinery and magnets, separate the different types of paper and plastic, metal, and glass.

The glass is ground up into sand or glass aggregate. The ground-up glass is used for road beds in the landfill, or as decorative landscaping.

The other recyclable materials are then sold to the highest bidder.

But what will happen in 2040, when the landfill runs out of space? There's no set plan in place yet.

According to Bessant, no more than two landfills can fall within a 75-mile radius. Here, the two landfills are in Horry and Georgetown counties.

"Gasification is one of the biggest deals going on now," said Knight. Gasification is a high-temperature process that converts waste into a synthesis gas, also known as syngas, according to the Global Technologies Syngas Council.

Those gasses can be used for fuel, fertilizer and substitute natural gas, according to the council. The byproduct is not ash, but rather a slag that can be used in cement and roof shingles.

"We’re always looking at ways to expand it, stay on the same footprint," Bessant said of the landfill. "We go look at new technologies all the time. You’ll find that new technology comes into play and everybody starts talking good about it and a year late it’s closed. We don’t want to be the guinea pig. We want to wait until the technology comes to play that’s gonna last."

Christian Boschult, 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian