James Peters has a dirty job, but he doesn’t hide it. Ask him and he’ll say that he’s simply a garbage man.
Peters is actually the manager of the Newton County Landfill, and underneath his simplified self description is a passion for a job he never thought he’d have.
With a father who spent his career working with heavy equipment, Peters grew up in the hands-on world. His favorite days at the landfill still involve working on a truck or bulldozer.
When his first son was born, Peters knew he needed a stable job with good insurance and local government work seemed to fit the bill. He originally hoped to join DeKalb County’s water and sewer workforce but had to settle for a landfill job instead.
It’s a job he’s come to appreciate during the two decades he’s spent in the field, and now he’s regarded as one of the state’s most innovative landfill managers after taking over Newton’s operation in November 2006.
Despite downplaying his own status, Peters will be the first to point out that a landfill is a lot more complicated than the simple hauling and dumping of trash.
Everything from basic recycling to the collection of cooking oil (hopefully used for bio-diesel fuel in the future) to the collection of bicycles for children in partnership with the Salvation Army, takes place at the county’s landfill vast 216-acre site off Lower River Road.
Dirt roads weave throughout the property, much of it heavily wooded, leading to a variety of hills and flatlands. The landfill contains three current phases for municipal solid waste (essentially residential trash, and anything with paper), two of which are closed and the third of which just opened in early August at a cost of $3.57 million.
The initial phase 1 was opened in the late 70s or early 80s and is unlined; requirements for lining landfills didn’t crop up until the early 1990s to prevent leachate (garbage wastewater).
Phase 2 which was recently closed is still in the process of being officially finished. A dirt cover has been placed over the landfill, but the top soil and grass seed have yet to be planted. Once the process is done, the area will look like any other 783-foot tall hill — that’s the maximum height allowed at Newton’s landfill.
Testing of water and methane levels will continue for 30 years, after which point environmental officials are satisfied the closed landfill is sufficiently secure.
The new phase 3 is currently receiving trash, and most of the two-foot thick stone base, which covers the lining, can still be seen. When a new phase is started, workers must carefully lay down a trash base, as it were. A four-foot “fluff” layer is created, where the trash is inspected to make sure there are no long, jagged pieces present that could puncture the lining.
There’s also a designated section for construction and demolition materials, including refuse from roads and buildings. No paper is allowed on this site.
Stormwater and methane meters surround the property, keeping a constant gauge on levels and ensuring no leaks are present. The Yellow River borders the 216-acre property for a large portion, and the waters are tested regularly. The county keeps a 200-foot buffer from the river both to ensure water quality and to protect the habitat of wildlife in the buffer.
Peters said Newton County’s landfill was recently inspected and the municipal solid waste area scored a 90, while the construction section scored a perfect 100. An 80 will get a landfill temporarily shut down, Peter noted.
While the storage of garbage and the safety measures the landfill has put in place are important, Peters is particularly proud of his recycling efforts.
The used-bicycle effort has proved particularly successful, with more than 130 having been collected to date. The first Saturday of the every month is kind of a free for all, as residents can drop off used clothes, cooking oil, paint and electronics, which are each processed separately.
Peters started up a few of these new recycling efforts in July of this year, and they’re a major reason why he won this year’s award for most innovative landfill from the Georgia chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America. It’s the second innovation award, while the landfill has also won two separate recycling awards during Peters’ tenure.
Contrary to popular belief, “Our landfill doesn’t stink,” Peters said. He’s only half joking. The landfill always has an odor, but by placing a layer of dirt or a concrete mixture called posi-shell on top of each day’s trash, the obnoxious odors are kept to a minimum.
While the air remains fairly fresh, Peters admits some of the workers aren’t so lucky.
“Sometimes the guys really stink, but somebody has to do the job,” he said, noting that a lot of guys won’t take their uniforms home and have them cleaned separately.
Without landfills, trash could just pile up, bringing up scenes of “I am Legend” and “WALL-E,” where apocalyptic survivors are left to navigate huge piles of trash.
“I’ve been in it for 20 years, and I’ve chosen this as my career. I kind of just stepped into it, but I’ve found good people in the field, a brotherhood,” Peters said. “I’ve been lucky to work for two counties that care about garbage and the future of solid waste.”