Farms Finest: Yesterday’s trash can be the next generation’s treasure

Joni Keefe
Farms Finest
Pitkin County Landfill's "Living laboratory Workshops" organizer Jack Johnson and sustainability intern Tatyana Stevens look at a garden box made from recycled materials.
Farms Finest/Special to The Aspen Times |

“Out of sight, out of mind,” was once the accepted way to get rid of all types of trash. It was not until the 1970s that waste products stopped being piled in “dumps” and they were recognized as being potential environmental disasters.

The 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act changed waste-management rules and greatly improved everyday practices. Updated technology provided better methods, and the term “sanitary landfill” was coined. From then on, trash processing became a highly sophisticated operation. The big business of “getting rid of stuff” is now modern science mixed with strict regulations.

Not all states are equally endowed in the number of landfill sites, and the space available in each varies greatly. The less space there is, the more added costs for shipping from transfer stations and processing, creating even more pollution in fuel emissions. Locally, the Pitkin County Landfill is estimated to have 20 years left before it is closed and becomes a transfer station.

Quietly hidden in hills behind mile marker 32 on Highway 82 is a beehive of activity at the Pitkin County Landfill. A series of synchronized operations begins at the busy weigh station and winds up the mountain to many specific piles of trash, like an enormous filing system.

But there is much more going on than just sorting and filing trash. There is a “retail store” that sells repurposed materials, turning waste into usable products that go back into the community, a perfect example of sustainability saving valuable landfill space.

The store’s product list includes beautiful boulders, various sizes of screened gravel, roadbase, topsoil, compost and wood chips. Why buy products out of town when we have our own being made here from local materials?

But this landfill has a much larger vision for sustainability in the works. This barren landscape, with no trees for windbreaks or grass to soften the intense sun, has plans to become an oasis of nature and learning.

Jack Johnson spearheads the Living Laboratory Workshops for Pitkin County, where he hosts classes at the landfill’s classroom. This offers a small hint of what is in the long-term vision for the landfill’s acreage when it closes.

Plans include outdoor classrooms and stations of demonstration gardens for the community to learn about regional gardening methods, proving that even this scarred landscape can be returned to sustainability.

The perception of what used to be considered a “dump” has taken a seismic shift. Landfills are now a place where science, technology and nature are coming together to teach about healing soils and restoring nature’s systems.

Sound crazy? Not at all. Look at Fresh Kills in New York, which once was the world’s largest dump. According to a Smithsonian article by Jimmy Stamp on Oct. 15, 2012, “Fresh Kills will be the most expansive park in New York. A symbol of renewal for the entire city. Slowly rotating wind turbines and photovoltaic panels will power the park’s comprehensive network of amenities. The biome, baseball fields, and bike paths concealing the refuse of another generation. A symbol of wasteful excess will have become a symbol of renewal.” For a virtual tour of the progress made to date, visit http://freshkills

In fact, landfills have morphed into parks, golf courses, soccer complexes and many other things since 1916. Capped (closed) landfills are excellent choices because they are usually large tracts of land located near communities and are relatively inexpensive. Plus, they offer the added opportunity to correct an environmental injustice. According to a survey by the Center for City Park Excellence, there may be as many as 4,500 acres of landfill parks inside major U.S. cities. For a listing, go to the Sustainable Cities Collective Web page.

The Pitkin County Landfill’s on-site education with the Living Laboratory Workshops is the first seed sown toward growing this vision. Recently, class subjects have ranged from composting, canning, mushrooms, chicken tractors and raising poultry to gardening and even a do-it-yourself workshop for repurposing discarded items. (Last year, skis were made into wine racks.) All classes are free, and they are open to future class suggestions.

Over time there will be numerous microclimate gardens built at the site showing everything from xeriscaping design to “gardens in a box.” To learn more about the landfill, go to Better yet, contact Johnson ( for a tour, and share in this exciting vision for the Pitkin County Landfill. At the same time, you might pick up some mulch or compost to close up your gardens for the season.

Joni Keefe grew up on a Vermont farm and has spent her career working with the environment and agriculture. She is passionate about sustainability, healthy agriculture and food systems. Contact her at