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An employee at the Rapid City Landfill drives the Bomag packer over loose garbage to pulverize and compact it.

It’s easy to give trash little more than a second thought. It gets thrown in the wastebasket, dumped in the garbage can and once a week wheeled to the curb where a large truck's mechanical arm snatches it from the ground and removes its contents before moving on to the next house.

It is so disposable, convenient and thus far affordable. But that doesn’t mean it's not costly to expand a landfill being filled at a rate of around 450 tons of garbage per day, according to Rapid City’s Solid Waste Department.

As trash continues to pour into the 360-acre landfill, residents recently learned the City Council has approved spending $6.8 million to create two new cells on a 50-acre plot. The city estimates that will cover our trash needs for maybe another 20 years when future expansion will certainly cost more in a throwaway society.

For now, the city won't have to borrow money for the landfill expansion — $4.7 million will come from the Solid Waste Department's undesignated cash fund and $2.1 million from the collection fund.

But that might not always be the case unless the city chooses to raise rates in the future. In 2016, the landfill  had a surplus of $345,457 after collecting $6,708,840 from users. If the city maintains that margin for the next 20 years, it would have around $6.9 million for another expansion, which won't go as far in the future.

Rather than wait and potentially approve steep rate increases as the City Council recently did when it voted for a 43 percent hike in water rates over five years, city staff needs to explore options for extending the life of the landfill's new cells. The most proven way to do so is to get serious about recycling. 

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Currently, the curbside recycling program does not accept paper, cardboard and plastic bags, for example. While the city does provide a few drop-off sites for paper and cardboard, it does not recycle plastic bags at all. Also, recycling bins are not available at apartment complexes, which are popping up at a greater rate lately.

As a result, the vast majority of newspapers, phone books, office paper, catalogues, junk mail, flyers, books, boxes found on store shelves and used to deliver products purchased online, and likely millions of plastic bags wind up gobbling up space in the landfill.

In addition to expanding curbside pickup to levels seen in cities like Sioux Falls, Huron and thousands of others nationwide, Rapid City needs to promote recycling as too many residents now point to our wide open spaces and say "see, we have plenty of room for garbage."

That maybe the case, but it will come at a considerable cost someday to ratepayers while turning greater tracts of the scenic Black Hills into, well, a dump. It is time for the city to expand curbside recycling and educate the public about its importance now and in the long run.

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