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Learn about the City of Roanoke from the City Manager's point of view.

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Apr 23

After it Goes in Big Blue, Then What?

Posted on April 23, 2018 at 12:33 PM by Whitney Slightham

City of Roanoke - Photo of Solid Waste Collection Vehicle

Ever wonder what happens to the trash you put in the Big Blue container each week?  This post will provide a brief overview of all it takes to ensure the garbage each of us generates is collected and safely disposed of. 

It Starts With the Can

Refuse collection and disposal for most of us in Roanoke begins with a Big Blue container – 40,217 dark blue containers for refuse and 31,963 light blue containers for recycling to be exact.  It takes over $7 million, 68 employees, and 32 trucks working each day to pick up refuse and to collect recycling, and bulk and brush items.  The City does this by running dozens of routes over four days each week.  Over the course of a year, this results in the collection of more than 38,000 tons of refuse. 

Let me pause for a moment and put that into perspective – 38,000 tons equals 76,000,000 pounds!  That equates to about 760 pounds of garbage generated per person, per year, just from our homes and small businesses.  In the City, the garbage we generate annually equates in weight to the equivalent of 12,000 adult elephants and, if piled in a stack, you could reach the height of the Star on Mill Mountain 9,500 times!  As daunting as that sounds, we actually generate less garbage per person in Roanoke than does the average American.  One reason our numbers are better is that we recycle over 8,200 tons or 16,600,000 pounds annually.

After the Can

So once it is collected, what happens next with our garbage?  The City of Roanoke collects refuse but does not directly dispose of it, so the next step in the process is to transfer the collected refuse to the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority for its disposal.  This transfer takes place at the Tinker Creek Transfer Station located on Hollins Road.  This facility receives refuse from Roanoke City, Roanoke County and the Town of Vinton, and accommodates the transfer from the trucks used to collect the garbage from residential cans to train cars for shipment to the landfill.  This facility handles over 700 tons (or 1,400,000 pounds) of refuse daily and is managed by a multi-jurisdictional board with representatives from Roanoke City, Roanoke County, the City of Salem, and the Town of Vinton.  After transfer to the train cars, the garbage is transported to the Smith Gap Landfill, which also is operated by the Resource Authority.  The landfill, which opened in 1994, is located in Roanoke County and encompasses 1,200 acres with a life expectancy of more than 50 years.  Once garbage is placed in the landfill, it is covered and will be monitored for decades under supervision of the Resource Authority, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Why Recycle?

Why is recycling important?  The obvious answer is because reusing items is environmentally responsible.  The more pragmatic answer is because disposal in a landfill is extremely expensive and landfills represent a scarce resource, each with a limited life.  We expect, in 2018, to spend well over $2 million in fees just to dispose of our trash in the landfill.  It costs approximately $15 more per ton to use the landfill instead of recycling.  The more we recycle, the less we need to place in the landfill and the less money we need to spend on disposal.  The good news is, here in Roanoke we have recycled for many years and, in 2015, started single-stream recycling, making it easier than ever.  Currently, our recycling is helping us avoid nearly $100,000 annually in landfill costs.

Other Items of Importance

So, next time you pay toward that annual $96 solid waste fee, please understand that it goes to help cover the costs of those 68 employees, 32 trucks, the transfer station, the waste line express train, and the landfill – all of which are necessary to ensure our refuse is efficiently collected and is safely disposed.  If you want to learn even more about this, I encourage you to check out the links on our web site that take you to Solid Waste Management or to Sustainability.  You may also want to look at the City’s Solid Waste Management Plan, which goes into detail regarding the collection and disposal of garbage. 

There you have it – what happens after Big Blue.  Now I hope that as each of us carry that garbage bag out for collection we can better appreciate what it takes to make it go away, and maybe take a few moments to thank the folks who work so hard every day on our behalf!

- Bob Cowell



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