How Sevier County landed a world-class garbage solution

Friday, June 15, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 24
By Linda Bryant

There’s no telling how many millions – maybe even over a billion – of tons of garbage, sludge and waste Tom Leonard has either processed and transformed into compost, reused or recycled in some fashion or dumped into a landfill.

As director of Sevier Solid Waste Inc., Leonard has overseen Sevier County’s groundbreaking solid waste processing and recycling program for the past 19 years.


Leonard is an enthusiastic ambassador for the innovative solid waste plant, which is known worldwide for its use of digesters.

The digesters, which are large hydraulic rolling drums, take sacks of everyday garbage and via a long process of churning and breaking down random refuse – from banana peels to shoe boxes to plastic straws – create a high-quality composting material often used by farmer, gardeners and landscapers.

The Ledger chatted with Leonard recently about the history of SSWI and asked him about the fascinating recycling process the facility is known for.

Tell me the history of how Sevier County became forward-thinking in regards to recycling, composting and waste removal.

“This place got started because they ran out of landfill space. Back in the 1980s, the landfill was operated by the city of Gatlinburg. Everybody else hauled to Gatlinburg’s landfill and paid them. When the landfill in Gatlinburg filled up, they decided other cities like Pigeon Forge and Sevierville had gotten big enough and they all needed to come together to work on a new solid waste plan. The idea was not to just leave it up to Gatlinburg. That’s how we got started in 1988.

“When they ran out of landfill space, they knew they had to find more land so they identified four spots within the county. They finally narrowed it down to three spots. One was in Boyd’s Creek, and the other is a place called The Brawty Farm, which is on the other side of town. None of the people on any of the three sites wanted it. But they finally decided that ours was the best site so they condemned the property.

“When it was time to vote about 2,000 people showed up raising cane, and there were even lives threatened. I think we ended up being forward-thinking only because after that experience everyone decided that they never wanted to site another landfill. They wanted to find some kind of process that would help so, they didn’t have to go through that again.’’

How did the whole idea of the rotating drums – or digesters – get discovered?

“They looked into incineration but back then being at the foot of the Great Smokies National Park meant it didn’t make good sense to burn trash. So they decided to look into composting, and they found a company that had a facility in Pinetop, Arizona, with one tiny little digester drum. They said they could build the plant – and they built it.

“When they originally built the plant there were three digesters. They were 12-foot-by-180-feet long. That company, called Bedminister, operated it for about five years. But they underestimated what it would take to run it financially, and they kept coming back and saying they needed more money. That went over like a lead balloon, so the city and county ended the contract.

“They hired a company called PSG, which is a large privatized wastewater facility. They operated the place for three years, and it was during that time that I started working here. I saw that we were spending a lot of money and from the experience of being in the landfill business, I knew that there were alternatives. We were spending too much money, and we didn’t have it either. We were spending twice the amount of money on waste than Knoxville, Morristown and everyone else around us.

“I thought the best thing to do was to shut it down and haul it to the landfill. That didn’t go over very well. They said that they had told everyone that this was going to work so I was just going to have to problem solve the existing situation. So we ended up taking the plant over and operating it ourselves, and we have ever since. We have been able to cut a lot of costs.’’

Can you explain how Sevier Solid Waste Inc. works?

“We are a nonprofit. We are government-owned so there’s no incentive to make a lot of money like a private contractor would. Over the years we have upgraded and invested $25 million into the facility. We are very comparable to a transfer station which is probably what we would have had if we didn’t have this.

“There are not a lot of Class 1 landfills in Tennessee; I think there are only 28 or 29. Most of the garbage in Knoxville is hauled to a big private landfill. Knox County gets hauled to Ridge Waste Management and the City of Knoxville gets hauled to Athens to Waste Connections. So, the city and the county are actually paying them a fee. A big landfill might cost around a $15-$20 a ton range. But to get it [waste] from Knoxville and put it into the ground in Athens is going to cost you more like $35-$40 because you’ve got to pay truckers to haul it down there. And that’s where we are at. We are actually under $30 a ton.

“So that’s how it all got started; it was really out of waste landfill avoidance. Recycling is a great thing, and it’s a great benefit. But the decision came more from not wanting another landfill. 1992 was when the plant originally got the digesters, and I started working here in 1999.

Can you share some details of the process with us?

“It takes about 2 to 3 hours to load each one of those digesters with garbage and sludge. The digesters turn continuously so they turn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They break open those bags and the sludge and the compost start mixing together. Then those microorganisms will start breaking everything down into compost. We blow air into the bag so it is an aerobic process.

“We just keep working all that material and it’s continuous. We do it in thirds so we will unload what we call the bottom which is the bottom third. These things are sloped from the tipping floor to where we unload them so the material will run down. When they unload that bottom third the middle will go to the bottom and the top will go to the middle.

“We have guys that come in at 4 in the morning and start that unloading process. The guy that does the loading process comes in at 6:30 so when he gets here they’ve already got one of them empty waiting for him to load. And he just works behind them all day long.’’

Am I right in assuming that most places don’t have digesters like this? Is that a rare thing?

“Yes, there are probably only about 15 places like this in the world.’’

How did your community get the money to pull this off?

“It was a government entity, so they issued bonds. We had two different bonds when I came here. At that time, we had issued $12 million worth of bonds, and we ended up paying those off about 10 years ago.

“We are operated like an enterprise fund which basically means we operate like a business. It’s not easy when you work for the government to even explain that because you’re not exactly set up to operate like a business. Cops write tickets, but they don’t write enough tickets to fund the police force.

“At Solid Waste, we charge a tipping fee just like Middle Point [Landfill] in Murfreesboro does. They pay us the money to be in the city and the county and [to be] private haulers. We take a lot of material from out of state and out of county.’’

So it sounds like the citizens of Sevier County whovoted for the services this plant offers are really making a statement.

“They really just voted the right people in. My four bosses are the same people today that made that decision [to get the digesters] back in 1988. They were the ones who decided that this was the best.

“Our board [consists of] three city managers [of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville] and the county mayor. This was really their idea. They worked with people to figure out what was the very best thing to do, and the support that their bosses gave them was the key. They had to sell this idea.’’

What are your biggest challenges?

“The biggest challenge we have is getting people to put waste in the proper container. We have all the garbage and sewer sludge from Sevier County and that all goes into the compost plant. But we can’t put furniture in the compost plant, and we can’t put a building that someone has torn down into the compost plant.

“We have a construction demolition landfill. Furniture and carpet also go in there. That is where all that material goes because there’s not many ways to recycle it. People invariably will throw things like carpet and furniture in a dumpster and that ends up at the compost plant. Then we have to deal with it.

“The city will come around and pick up things [like furniture and carpet] but some people still throw it in the dumpster. Items like carpet create these things we call hairballs and they get stuck in the [digester] machine, and you can’t get them out. That’s because the door that we’re letting [the composting material] come out of is only about the size of your desk, and it only opens halfway.

“We’ve received a grant from the state of Tennessee so we can do an education and outreach program this year to teach people not to throw away things like carpet, big bunches of wire, water hoses and other things like that in the dumpster.’’

Have other municipalities or counties replicated what you have done?

“Early on there were some facilities that got built off of this facility and all the way up until the 2000s. There is a project going on in California right now that we are going to be doing a big test for. We haven’t had a lot of movement in a while, but California has a sustainability goal that they are going to recycle 75 percent of their waste by 2020.

“I don’t think it’s always the expense that stops people from building facilities like ours. It’s that the big waste companies control all of the garbage. Land filling used to be cheap. Before 1991 you could dig a hole and put it in the ground and that was pretty much it. Now landfills are engineered, and you have to have liners, collection pipes, etc.

“They’re expensive. They are $300,000 per acre to build and that doesn’t include operations, land, or anything.

“So private companies have a fair amount of their money invested in landfills.

“It’s not in their best interest to put garbage and recycling somewhere else. If you invest a $100 million in a landfill you want to make a $100 hundred million. Well, it wouldn’t cost that much, but you know what I’m saying.

“But they [private companies] are starting to change and starting to invest [in alternatives]. They control all the garbage. Until the big waste companies decide that’s what they want to do you are not going to see other technologies widely used.

“Ninety-percent of the garbage in Tennessee is still hauled to a landfill.’’