Larimer County’s Only Public Landfill Is Almost Full, With No Replacement – Yet

May 10, 2018

When it opened in 1963, the Larimer County Landfill had plenty of room to hold most of the trash produced by the residents of Estes Park, Fort Collins and Loveland. Its annual input was 50,000 tons per year.

But last year, the landfill swallowed 350,000 tons of garbage.

By 2025, according to projections, it will balloon to 540,000 tons.

The landfill’s mountainous “working face” is now nearly as high as the natural foothills of Horsetooth Reservoir that serve as its backdrop. On busy days, more than 1,000 trash trucks and smaller haulers can clog the landfill’s entrance gates.

Its previously isolated location – 8 miles south of Old Town, Fort Collins – is no longer the remote hideaway it once was. Dozens of housing developments and businesses dot the hillsides surrounding it.  

The landfill, like waste facilities in Colorado and around the country, has a limited amount of something called “air space,” or the volume of physical space a landfill is permitted to use for trash disposal.

The Larimer County Landfill’s is about to run out.

Officials predict the landfill will reach capacity by the end of 2024 or early 2025.

That’s 6 years from now — no time, if you ask anyone in the trash business. At that point, all the garbage that gets dumped there will have to go somewhere else. Expanding the landfill at its current site is not an option, according to the facility’s director, Stephen Gillette.

“Once that capacity is reached, see you! We’re closed,” he said. “By December ’24, under current scenarios, we’ll close the gates and say, ‘onto new and better diversion techniques.’”

That’s why a group of elected officials, city and county staff from Larimer County, Estes Park, Fort Collins and Loveland are racing to secure a plan for new waste management infrastructure.

Coined the North Front Range Wasteshed Coalition, the intergovernmental group has spent the past 2 years studying how to handle the growing amount of garbage in northern Colorado. They’ve hired national consultants, conducted surveys of residents and held a series of open house meetings on the issue to get feedback from communities. 

All of their work is leading up to this summer, when a course of action will be decided.

­The coalition has narrowed the options down to five proposals:

  • A new county landfill
  • A central transfer station
  • A construction and demolition waste processing facility
  • A food waste composting facility
  • A yard waste composting facility, including a county-wide ban on yard waste in the new landfill

The coalition’s timeline is straightforward: Nail down an infrastructure plan by the end of 2018 and implement supportive local policies through the work of a trash political action committee. Members are also exploring public-private partnerships that remain under wraps.

By 2020, start building. 

A map of the current trash flow in the region overseen by the North Front Range Wasteshed Coalition.
Credit North Front Range Wasteshed Coalition

Honore Depew, an environmental planner for Fort Collins, represents the city in the coalition.  He, along with the other members, revealed the top five most promising ideas during an open house meeting held on Monday, May 7.

He said a new county landfill, if approved by elected officials, would be located in a 640-acre swath of land north of Fort Collins, near Wellington. The four other facilities would be built at the Larimer County Landfill’s current site.

But it’s not as simple as just dumping trash in another location. The key to sustainable growth, Depew said, is making sure that communities are talking throughout the process.

“Throughout northern Colorado, people are living and working and traveling more and more in different areas, so having consistency throughout the region makes it easier for everyone to sort of understand how to handle their waste materials,” he said.

Ron Gilkerson, solid waste project director for the coalition, echoed Depew’s calls for collaboration.

“We need process controls and ordinances that are adopted by our municipal partners to get the mixed waste to this facility, so the county can put it on the ground,” he said. “That’s the next step.”

Gilkerson said he hopes that will happen before the end of the year. Without them, they can’t build anything.

Laurel Grimm owns Dumpster Rental, a family hauling business in the city, and was at the May 7 meeting. She said she liked what she heard from the coalition but hoped to see more aggressive recycling efforts.

“Going to the landfill as often as I do, I cannot believe how much furniture I see that goes in the landfill,” she said.

The coalition’s plan also calls for the diversion of up to 40 percent of trash from the new landfill on top of what’s already being recycled or composted.

Stephen Gillette, director of the county’s solid waste program, said he is certain the region is ready for its next chapter of waste management – even if he’s not around for it.

“As I say I'll be around for the setting of the table, but might not be there for the banquet,” he said. “That’s okay. I've done my damage and I can move on.”

Gillette is planning to retire before 2025. During his tenure as director, he’s helped Larimer County build a capital investment fund of nearly $40 million from the landfill’s profits.

“This is an enterprise fund,” he said. “We run this like a business.”

While unlikely to be the final pick, according to the coalition, another option the group has studied is building nothing.

Trash then would have to be outsourced to landfills in Weld County or Denver. The additional driving could emit 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year and push up monthly rates.

Members of the coalition will take the five recommendations to city and town councils across Larimer County for approval starting in late May.