Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of deliberations, Rutherford County has made little progress on deciding what it will do when Middle Point Landfill closes.
The dump accepts trash from 19 counties in Middle Tennessee, including Davidson. Because of the growing population in the area, it will fill to capacity in about six years, according to county officials. It’s unclear what they’ll do when that happens and whether they'll have adequate time to prepare.
"We are on a venture right now that should have been undertaken five years prior," said County Commissioner Mike Kusch.
Extending The Life Of A Landfill
Residents of Rutherford County have no love lost for the massive Middle Point Landfill. Neighbors of the dump site call it "Trash Mountain" or "Mount Trashmore" and frequently complain about the smell.
But it's also a convenient setup for the county. Republic Services, the company that owns and operates Middle Point, made a deal with the county in 1995 so it could dump trash there for free. And to this day, Murfreesboro residents don’t pay for curbside garbage pickup.
However, since then, Rutherford County has experienced dramatic growth — a 20 percent increase in population between 2010 and 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Nobody had any idea that Rutherford County and the City of Murfreesboro would grow like it has,” solid Waste Director Mac Nolen said.
Middle Point also accepts a large portion of the trash from fast-growing Davidson County. According to Nolen, the dump took in 1.1 million tons of trash last year, and over 400,000 tons of that came from Davidson.
That growth has accelerated the filling of Middle Point, a problem officials started looking into about a year and a half ago. The County and the City of Murfreesboro agreed to jointly pay $250,000 to GBB, a consulting group based in Virginia.
GBB's chief recommendation was to allow Republic to expand to a closed public landfill right next door to the Middle Point site. Essentially, the company would excavate the old site and extend the life of Middle Point by up to 15 years.
Residents in the area strongly opposed this plan, citing a foul odor and environmental concerns for the site that sits along the Stones River. The county ended up voting unanimously to reject that recommendation in the spring of this year — which left it not far from where it started.
Other Recommendations Fall Short
After choosing to not expand the landfill, Rutherford County was left with a few other recommendations from the consultants, each with its own unique financial and practical challenges — and none fulfilling all the needs of the county.
Option #1: Do nothing. GBB said the county could wait until Middle Point was full and then figure out what to do, but Nolen said that "truly isn’t an option."
Option #2: Create a waste-to-energy facility where the county would burn trash to create steam or electricity, but that comes with its own list of problems. According to Nolen, waste-to-energy facilities require more waste than the county can generate on its own, meaning it would have to continue importing trash from other counties to be feasible. Furthermore, he said that in order for the electricity generated to cross property lines, it would have to go through TVA, which would be a complicated process.
Waste-to-energy also comes with a big price tag, because the gas produced when burning the trash has to be collected and filtered before it's released into the atmosphere, according to Nolen.
Option #3: The final recommendation from GBB was to build "transfer stations" around the county: sites that would collect all the trash produced in the county and then ship it on tractor trailers to out-of-county landfills. However, some are still opposed to the idea of shipping trash outside the county, according to the Daily News Journal.
Other options are on the table as well, including a composting facility proposed by County Mayor Bill Ketron. He chartered a bus to Sevierville in September to tour a facility there. Officials also alluded to creating a regional solid waste board that would include representation from neighboring counties, which would pool resources to manage trash.
What About Recycling?
In the meantime, officials encourage residents to use existing recycling collection centers. Nolen said recycling currently makes up 15 to 18 percent of Rutherford County’s waste, but that could number could be a lot higher.
While Rutherford County has more than a dozen recycling collection centers, it doesn't have public curbside pickup. For residents accustomed to the free and convenient garbage pickup offered by the county, recycling can seem like an unnecessary hassle.
However, for environmentally conscious residents, recycling is worth the drive. Priscilla Diaz recently moved to Rutherford County from Miami, where she had a similar setup for recycling: collecting and sorting items at home before driving them to a nearby center.
"It takes a little bit of effort, but it’s definitely worth it. We want to take care of our planet, so this is where we start," Diaz said.
But even if recycling in Rutherford County did increase, that wouldn’t solve all the county’s issues. There’s still organic waste, non-recyclables, brush and tires that need places to go.
"There is no one operation or no one solution that’s going to do everything we do," Nolen said.
The bottom line right now: There is no plan.
Nolen does have a dream for the county’s solid waste future. It would be a 100-acre campus that includes waste-to-energy, composting, recycling, transfer stations and room to try out new technologies as they develop.
But that's not necessarily realistic, Nolen said.
“The problem is right now we don’t need 100 acres. And if we buy a piece of land that’s smaller and need to expand, that land around us might not be for sale,” he said.
It also could be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to build these facilities, including securing permits from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Commissioner Mike Kusch said he thinks the county can decide and execute a solution before Middle Point closes. According to Kusch, County Mayor Ketron has organized a group to meet weekly to determine the best move for the county’s solid waste. But if that doesn’t happen, Rutherford will be forced to send its garbage to other counties.
Nolen said regardless of what the county works out, there is no way garbage pickup can remain free for residents. He said it will most likely be billed like a utility or show up in property taxes and could cost upward of $300 a year per household.
The City of Murfreesboro, which has also enjoyed free dumping for the past two decades, will start charging $5 a month by 2019, according to the Daily News Journal. The city also hired a second round of consultants — this time for $15,000 — to conduct a study determining what it should charge long-term for curbside pickup.
City Councilmember Eddie Smotherman said the city is unsure when the study will conclude.
“We’re looking at a scenario that has a lot of unknowns,” Smotherman said.