My first ever visit to a landfill

22 Nov 2019 Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico

It was already Thursday afternoon, I had to catch my flight on Monday and I started to accept the fact that I’ll leave Mexico without gaining access to a landfill. As I was biting into my “tamales con tofu” (probably not the most typical Mexican dish), my phone buzzed with a message from a guy I met at a sustainable entrepreneurship conference - “Can you come at noon? Tomorrow.” He sent me the GPS coordinates of where I should go and instructed me to ask for Pedro (not his real name) when I arrive. Google suggested that it will take me more than 6 hours to get there by public transport. I swung by my place to pick up my toothbrush and passport and immediately left for the bus terminal. Two hundred kilometres and one movie (“Guten tag, Ramon”, it made me cry a lot) later I arrived in Santiago de Querétaro. A picture perfect city.

Next morning I took a local bus from Santiago de Querétaro in the direction of the Relleno Sanitario Querétaro. The sign inside the bus stated that the driver was married and was hence a “forbidden fruit”, i.e. just pay up 11 pesos (double than what you’d pay in Mexico city) and move down inside the bus. The driver was clearly very experienced, he masterfully opened and closed the doors on the move so that the time spent stationary at a bus stop was minimal. The initially full bus started to empty after 20 minutes. The distances between the stops grew longer. After 30 minutes there were only three passengers left, including me. Finally, it was just me. From the nearest bus stop it was a 15 minutes walk along the motorway to reach the entrance gate of the landfill. The landscape was dominated by cacti and noticeably lacked any humans. It was hot and dry.

Finally I arrived at a gate with the Veolia logo and a line of garbage trucks queuing to enter. I smiled at the security guard as I approached. “I’m here to see Pedro” I introduced myself in Spanish. It obviously wasn’t very good as the security guard replied “Americana?”. I said “No, I’m from London” which provoked excited whistles from the drivers of the queueing trucks. “So, Pedro. The head engineer! Are you an engineer yourself?” asked the security guard. “Not engineer… I’m… computers” I smiled, and he smiled back “Ah, systems person!”. He demanded my passport. He took a picture of me with his tablet, compared the photo he took with the photo in my passport, and finally took a photo of my passport too. He had to complete a long form on his tablet. Looking at my passport he quietly said to himself “Name… Latvia… Surname…” “No,” I intervened and pulled out my UK driving licence. “Name is Karina, born in Latvia, residency - UK” and pointed to the British flag prominently displayed on my license. He finished filling in the form and the printer behind him spit out a piece of paper with a barcode. He handed it to me - “Take a photo of this barcode with your phone. This will be your internal ID while you are here, linked to your passport.” He dressed me into a high visibility vest and pointed me in the direction of a small office building - “Go.”

Pedro met me at the entrance of his office. He gestured to me to sit down in front of him, apologised that his previous meeting is overrunning, and shifted his attention back to the video call with his colleagues. Probably with colleagues that are quite happy to not have their office in the middle of a landfill. In the meantime, I was frantically searching the dictionary for words I might need for our conversation. Once the video meeting was over, I explained to him my career ambitions and he smiled with approval. I told him I wanted to know how landfills work outside Europe. He started by saying “Well, you’ve seen our competitors across the road as you were making your way here.” He explained that they do things differently - “they have a sorting facility, so they are able to recover some valuables like recyclables. Still, it’s estimated that only about 8% of the valuables contained in the trash are recovered. Everything else is shredded and sold as RDF. The plastics content is high and therefore the energy density is very good. This is a cheap burnable fuel people like to buy.” “We do things differently” he emphasised. “We don’t have a sorting facility, though we might in the future. We have a landfill.”

He found a marker and started drawing on his whiteboard. The landfill is excavated, lined with a durable material to prevent contamination of the soil, and the bottom is covered with a layer of chunky “filler”. The bottom of the landfill is sloped so that the liquid collecting at the bottom of the trash would flow into the evaporation pool. The filler at the bottom ensures that the liquid can reach the bottom without being blocked by compressed rubbish. Once collected, this liquid is also used to water the landfill, so that the liquid filters through the trash again thus maintaining the moisture levels, stimulating bacteria growth and speeding up the bio-degradation. Unlike parts of Mexico city I’m familiar with, here bio and non-bio trash are processed together. Pedro said that after a while thin plastic bags show a lot of signs of decay, while some other plastic objects always look like new. He said that in places where plastic bags were banned you could see a visible difference - all people were using durable reusable bags that they carried around with them. But this did not reflect in the garbage - the amount of plastic bags there stayed constant. He said that around here plastic straws will be banned soon and straws from alternative materials will become popular. I didn’t know the word for a straw in Spanish, but it turns out this word is easy to explain with body language. Pedro guessed what the expression on my face meant, “yes, these are all tiny improvements compared to the huge problem of plastics pollution.”

“So… Whom do you pay and who pays you?” I asked, which was the most elegant way I could put it using my limited Spanish. He explained that they pay for a long term lease of the land, while the local municipality pays them for every tonne of waste they accept. The competitor company across the road had a breakdown almost two weeks ago, since then they were unable to accept trash and Pedro’s landfill was getting double the usual amount. They also harvest the biogas produced by the landfill, convert it to electricity and sell it to the grid. “Our energy powers 30% of the local grid” said Pedro proudly. Once we got to the legal matters, Pedro explained that there is a law that outlines the minimum requirements for a landfill. All (legal) landfills in Mexico comply with these requirements. Since Veolia is a French company they follow EU regulations, and here in Mexico they keep to the same standards. Therefore this landfill is far ahead of the minimum requirements. Nevertheless, since they are a foreign company they are audited by the government every 6 months to receive permission to continue their operation. This includes testing the soil under the landfill and comparing the contaminant levels to a reference measurement. They also have to record how many items of machinery they have here and how many hours a month every item is used. This measures the landfill’s CO2 impact and ensures that they don’t do more harm than good. Pedro pointed to the grassy field dotted with shrubs and cacti stretching for as far as one could see through the window behind me. “Once the landfill is full, we cover it, put half a meter of soil on top, then some fertile soil on top, and then the ecosystem takes over. The roots of the trees hold everything together. Doesn’t look bad, right?” Admittedly I didn’t realise I was looking at what used to be a landfill just 15 years ago. Pedro looked at me with a smile of excitement “So… Are you ready for a ride?”

As we left the office building, the first thing I noticed was a huge bright yellow platform that was the scale that every garbage truck had to drive through on their way both in and out. That is how the municipality knew how many tonnes they have to pay for. Pedro looked at me judgmentally and asked in English “Safety shoes???” I lifted my foot in a horse-like manner showcasing my mountaineering grade hiking shoes. I nodded hoping that he is not a hiker and will mistake these for real safety shoes. He introduced me to our driver and we went to a pickup truck. The sun was burning hot and Pedro asked if I’d like a cap. He reappeared in a second with a bright red Veolia cap and a face mask. “You might not like the smell,” he said. He smiled and announced that the cap was a gift for me from the company. I put it on and headed for the pickup truck, when I saw a giant truck with metal tires (can you even call them tires if they are not made from rubber?) with huge metal teeth sticking out of them. “What do you call it?” I asked. Pedro gave me a model number for this specific vehicle. “No, what do YOU call it?” I insisted. “El compressor!” Pedro smiled. As I jumped into the pickup truck, Pedro commanded me to put the sit belt on immediately. “Safety comes first in here” he apologised.

We started our drive along the dirt road. Pedro asked the driver to stop when we were passing an area covered by green plastic mesh. He was very proud of this mesh that created shade, minimises evaporation in this desert-like climate, and allows grass to hold on to the dirt and grow better. He wanted me to appreciate how much more grass there was growing through the mesh compared to the patches that were not covered. While I was looking, there was a line up of garbage trucks accumulating behind us. We moved on and as we came to a fork on the road, Pedro told the driver “To the observation deck”. Our truck slowly climbed up the terrain that felt like a pyramid. Pedro explained that indeed filling up a landfill is like building a pyramide. The ratio is 3:1 to ensure that it is very stable. Our truck would conquer a steep slope and then drive for three times that distance before reaching the next steep slope. Methane collection pipes were snaking all around us. As we reached the top I noticed hundreds of stunningly beautiful birds with feathers that radiated white. I asked if they lived here permanently. Pedro defensively said (is the ability to distinguish between a casual and a defensive comment a sign of mastering a language?) that the birds only eat the little flies, they never nibble on the trash. As the car stopped on the top of the “pyramide”, I obediently put on the face mask and we stepped out.

Far down below us there was A LOT of trash, a long line of garbage trucks queuing to unload, and El Compressor shuffling the trash into higher piles and then driving over them. As I pointed my phone’s camera at this scene it went into a “landscape” mode. Yes, I do hope it’s not my dinner! Pedro proudly said “You see, we do everything correctly here. It’s clean rubbish and that is why it doesn’t even smell that bad. We are right next to it and you can barely smell it, right?” I pulled off my mask (nobody else had one) and smiled. Pedro was pleased. I asked if El Compressor ever gets stuck in the trash. Pedro said that it usually doesn’t happen. “Unless it rains” chimed in the driver. “It rains rarely here, but when it does…it rains A LOT! Then we sometimes need another truck to pull this one out” he explained. We jumped back into our pickup truck and began our descent towards the very bottom of the pyramid.

“How many people work here”, I asked and both Pedro and the driver replied “42” simultaneously. Once we reached the global minima of the whole landscape around us, Pedro pointed towards the observation deck we came from - “This whole pile you see, it’s about 8 months of trash.” He explained how the size of a landfill is calculated when the project begins, taking into account the number of years the project is meant to last and the number of habitants that the landfill will serve. It’s about 1kg of trash per person per day. We drove towards an evaporation pool. Pedro wanted me to confirm that even that doesn’t smell too bad. “Let me show her the big engine,” said Pedro. The driver dropped us off at a cluster of small buildings and left.

We walked into a building, 90% of its volume was taken by a huge engine radiating a lot of heat. “This converts biogas into electricity we sell to the grid” said Pedro and gestured towards the huge pipe coming out of the adjacent building - “and there we burn excess methane, which is cheaper than going through all the purification stages to be able to sell it as fuel.” As I looked at the raging flames coming out of the top of the pipe, Pedro laughed “we could cook burgers up there.” “Or better a whole pig” I smiled back and then shook my head - “I’m actually vegetarian.” We walked into the next building - the control room. It had a single desk with a keyboard and only two monitors. Nothing like a control room for Glasgow traffic I’ve been to in Scotland, there they had 12 monitors per person. In the corner of the room there was a tall server rack. I pointed at it asking if everything was local or did they use cloud services too. Pedro replied that these servers controlled everything in this landfill, and hence everything was done locally. “It’s a private network and everything is encrypted, so it’s secure” he confirmed. I gave him a sceptical look. “Of course if I had the intention, I could come here with a USB stick… But that is exactly why we never let anyone into our facilities.” I felt lucky to be an exception.

As we walked back to his office, looking at the shrubby greenery on our right - the landfill covered 15 years ago - Pedro smiled “Y no pasó nada”. “Of course we do have an impact on the environment” he continued, “but so does everything else, and we do try our very best. The municipality-run landfills are the worst. The municipalities audit companies like Veolia twice a year every year, but obviously they don’t audit themselves.” Once we reached Pedro’s office, he asked if I’d like some water. I said that I won’t take a small plastic bottle, but I would appreciate a refill of my own bottle. I handed him my metal bottle, “it was a gift from my Novio” I smiled. He politely said that it’s a very pretty bottle and started wandering around the office and asking around. After every single person in the office shook their head Pedro had to admit that there was no drinking water available in the office, only the small plastic bottles. “We simply ran out” he apologised. As I was leaving, I asked for Pedro’s business card. “Yes,” he said, handing me one, “you write to me when you need a landfill engineer… to answer your questions.” I walked back towards the gate, passed the security guard, pointed at my bright red Veolia cap with both hands and smiled. He understood that the visit went well.

As I was walking along the motorway in the middle of the desert-looking landscape, the bright red really stood out.