Where does Austin's trash go?
The year was 2017. Shawn Elkins and his family had just moved into their new house in the Harris Branch neighborhood in Northeast Austin when a friend said to him: "So, I see you guys decided to move next to Mount Trashmore."
His friend was referring to the Austin Community Landfill.
"In my mind, it was never the Austin Community Landfill," Elkins said. "It was forever Mount Trashmore."
Elkins reached out to KUT’s ATXplained project and asked: "What’s the deal with the Austin Community Landfill (Mount Trashmore)?"
Despite its name, the City of Austin doesn't actually send its trash there — at least not anymore. But we'll to get to that in a minute.
The 420-acre site off Highway 290 between Austin and Manor first opened in 1970. Waste Management of Texas has owned and operated it since 1980.
"Probably we have two to four years of remaining life left at that site before it’s reached its capacity," the landfill's manager, Bubba Smith, said.
Smith said the site’s remaining life will ultimately be determined by how much trash comes into the facility each day. The landfill takes in residential trash from various communities in Central Texas — but not the City of Austin.
In 2020, Austin City Council declined to renew a contract with Waste Management and the Austin Community Landfill.
"There had been a historical record of complaints ... about odors from that facility and other environmental issues," said Richard McHale, the interim director of Austin Resource Recovery, the city's trash collection agency.
McHale said now all of the city's residential trash goes to a landfill in Creedmoor — a small town about 11 miles south of downtown Austin.
That landfill is owned and operated by Texas Disposal Systems. The 2,300 acre site first opened in 1991. It serves as a landfill as well as a recycling and compost facility.
In 2021, Austin Resource Recovery collected 138,955 tons of trash through its curbside collection service.
Ryan Hobbs, TDS's director of business development, said the City of Austin’s trucks dump trash directly into the TDS landfill.
Once the trash is dumped, it gets flattened into a tightly packed layer by a machine called a landfill compactor.
The machine, Hobbs said, weighs about a 125,000 pounds. Part drum-roller and part bulldozer, it helps distribute and crush the trash.
"The weight of that machine, and those wheels, with the big spikes on it, compacts the waste down very tightly," he said. "Our objective is to take three cubic yards and compact it down into one yard."
Once the trash is compacted, it gets covered with a layer of soil.
"I know it’s probably not the technical term, but I think of it kind of like a lasagna," said TDS spokesperson Leticia Mendoza. "There’s waste and then there’s soil, there’s waste and there’s soil."
In addition to preventing odors, Mendoza said this method also helps prevent wildlife from getting into the trash.
"There aren’t many creatures [or] birds flying around because of the process that we use," she said. "We don’t give them enough time to be able to find the waste."
However, just a few hundred yards away from the landfill, you will find a bunch of exotic wildlife. Giraffes, various species of antelope, zebras — even the near-threatened white rhino and critically endangered black rhino.
The Gregory family, the founders of Texas Disposal Systems, owns the Exotic Wildlife Game Ranch, which sits on land that is under permit for future landfill expansion.
Its website says the ranch is primarily used as a breeding and conservation operation for the family's private collection and livestock sales. It says the ranch has more than 2,000 animals and over 100 species.
Hobbs said the ranch "can co-exist around a facility that’s needed."
"You have to have these [landfills]," he said. "What you don’t have to have is the poor operation of them where you create nuisance."
Being neighbors with a landfill is one thing for wildlife, but for Elkins, it was different.
Earlier this year, Elkins and his family decided to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Living right next to the Austin Community Landfill in Northeast Austin could be a "nuisance," he admitted.
While he says the landfill wasn’t the driving motive in the move, it definitely "played a factor."
It's Garbage Week on KUT News. It's like Shark Week, but with no sharks and more garbage. We'll trace the path of the junk Austin makes, including how your food scraps get turned into garden soil, how much of the stuff in the blue bins actually gets recycled and how we can all do trash disposal better. Listen on KUT 90.5 FM or find the stories here (new ones added throughout the week!).