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Texas Environmental Almanac, Chapter 8, Municipal Waste, Page 4

Landfills are an emotional issue: some people clamor for them, others earnestly object to their presence. In Texas, landfills have been the predominant method of municipal solid waste disposal. However, in the last ten years, Texans have seen a decline in the number of landfills. In 1986, 250 of Texas' 254 counties had at least one landfill; in 1995 only 130 counties will have a landfill. Stricter landfill regulations to protect the environment and human health are forcing local communities either to ante-up with new dollars for redesigning their current landfill or close it.

Even with the large number of landfill closures, however, the TNRCC studies reveal landfill capacity in the state has not changed much since 1986. Large new landfills are replacing smaller older landfills and some older facilities have expanded their capacity. The TNRCC estimates that at the end of 1992 Texas had 20 years of landfill life remaining statewide.(41)

At the same time, however, landfill closures in various regions of the state do create potential problems, including increases in the cost of transporting waste, the need for more waste transfer stations, privatization of waste transport and disposal and illegal, potentially harmful dumping. Transfer stations are facilities where various communities bring their waste until it is transported to a permanent site. These transfer sites might pose the same problems as do landfills: potential groundwater pollution, siting problems and odor.

Privatization of waste management is also an issue in smaller communities where the concern is that one company could have a monopoly over this sector of the economy. The 10 largest landfills in Texas provide more than one-third of the state's available landfill capacity. Of those 10 facilities, seven are privately owned.(42)

Landfills, both closed and active, can pose potential threats to surface and groundwater quality and to human health. Potential groundwater contaminants from municipal waste landfills include Acetone, Benzene, Tricholoroethylene, Lead, Chlorides and 1,4-Dichlorobenzene. In 1993, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission identified at least 24 municipal landfills causing groundwater pollution.

Under the amended Subtitle D of RCRA, stricter federal pollution controls have been established for landfills. These include restrictions on the location of landfills and prescription for landfill liners, leachate (water that goes through waste) collection systems, methane gas monitoring, groundwater monitoring, closure, post-closure care and financial assurances. Texas has developed new municipal solid waste regulations that reflect these federal requirements.


In 1987 the city of Center, located in East Texas, built a waste-to-energy facility anticipating a cheap waste disposal option for its municipal waste. The city also anticipated new revenues from the sale of steam to the local Tyson food processing plant. A bonus appeared a few years later in the way of a contract for and from the incineration of medical waste collected by a local company. Center's experience illustrates some of the difficulties with waste-to-energy facilities. Because of the amount of medical waste the city had contracted to dispose, the incinerator was not always able to handle Center's own municipal waste. This forced Center to pay another city to dispose of its municipal waste. Even so, Center was able to recover more in fees from selling energy and incinerating medical waste than it was putting out in operating expenses. Then, for about three months in 1994, the incineration facility broke down and Center began to lose approximately $37,000 a month in revenue from Tyson and the medical waste company. At the same time the city was losing revenue, it had to continue paying for operating personnel, municipal waste disposal fees and equipment repair. In addition, the contract with the medical waste company went awry. Center is reviewing its management options.(40)

Illegal Dumps

As of the summer of 1994, the majority of municipal solid waste enforcement cases handled by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission dealt with illegal municipal solid waste dump sites. These crop up for a variety of reasons. In a few cases, a community or private handler that does not have a permitted municipal solid waste landfill will gain access to an absent landowner's property and use it. In other situations, an individual who wants to make a few dollars will allow his property to be used for disposal of items like construction debris, old appliances and old tires at a cheaper cost than using the municipal landfill. There are also property owners who want inert waste as fill to build up their land.(43) These dumps can contain hazardous materials like pesticides, posing threats to groundwater and public health. The TNRCC identifies approximately 500 major illegal dump sites each year. This number does not include illegal dump sites detected by local governments.

Yard Trimmings14.67%10.75%
Other MSW26.71%19.59%
Total MSW100.00%73.30%
Construction & Debris Waste16.70%
Municipal Sludge3.00%
Industrial Waste7.00%
Total Other<26.70%
Source: Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, Municipal Solid Waste Plan for Texas, January 1995, p 51.

Biosolids: By Any Other Name, Sludge

Approximately 8 million tons per year of wet municipal sludge from municipal water and wastewater treatment plants and septic tanks are generated in Texas. Sludge management is regulated by the TNRCC. Most sludge stays at wastewater treatment sites in lagoons for long periods of time. Large lagoons often have five to ten years of storage capacity. During its stay at the waste site, the sludge is often dried, then sent to landfills or applied to land. In Texas, about 650,000 dry tons of sludge end up in landfills every year.

The following are the state's preferred methods for treating municipal sludge in order of most preferred to least preferred:(44)

As some communities have learned, sludge can be a valuable resource. Because of the nature of the material, it has components that can be useful - minerals, metals and common plant nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen. Rather than dump sludge into landfills, where it takes up an enormous amount of valuable space, cities like Fort Worth, Houston and Austin have found beneficial uses for sludge. The city of Fort Worth has hired a private contractor to distribute 70 tons of dry sludge a day from its wastewater treatment facility to area farmers and ranchers.(45) The landowners do not pay for the sludge but each user must meet certain land application standards set by TNRCC. While there have been objections by some property owners living adjacent to these treated lands and uncertainties do exist about the long-term effects on groundwater, the "beneficial use" of sludge as a source of nutrients for farm and ranch land can be a cost-effective management practice.

Using a somewhat different approach, the City of Austin composts and then sells more than 50 percent of its sludge to 15 wholesale nurseries who in turn market and sell it to retail consumers as Dillo Dirt. Dillo Dirt sludge receives a high form of treatment to reduce toxic materials.(46)

According to one sludge specialist, it is impossible to accurately compare the costs of landfilling sludge to land application. What most sludge specialists agree upon is that if not significantly contaminated with heavy metals, sludge can be a valuable resource that should not be dumped in a landfill.(47)


Senate Bill 963, of the 73rd Legislature, authorized the TNRCC to use disposal fee revenue to conduct studies to help local governments and the private sector convert to accounting systems and set rates that reflect the full costs of providing waste management services and are proportionate to the amount of waste generated. The TNRCC currently has such a study under development.

To Reduce, to Recycle, to Burn, to Dump: The Critical Issue of Costs and Benefits.

The loss and degradation of our natural resources and the threat to human health should be powerful incentives to reduce and recycle our waste. In reality, however, communities faced with competing demands on their budget must justify expenditures through cost analyses.

In Texas, most communities looking at waste management options compare the costs of recycling to landfilling or a combination of both recycling and landfilling. This comparison is difficult to make accurately. There are few standard methods for making such comparisons and cities rarely account for the total cost of programs - overhead, closure costs, costs of land, depreciation of equipment and environmental problems in making such comparisons.(48) Moreover, the long-term costs of maintaining and closing a landfill are not easily predicted. Too often we have assumed that technology will solve the problem, only to discover unanticipated problems and costs. Likewise, recycling has its unpredictable costs, and local and national markets for the materials change.

Solid waste economists claim that no matter what solid waste management system a community uses - incineration, recycling or landfilling - waste disposal is something that the public must pay for and those costs are going to rise.(49)

Texas Environmental Almanac, Chapter 8, Municipal Waste, Page 4

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