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How one Appalachian company is making its impact on landfills

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Centuries from now, everyone currently living on Earth will be gone, but each piece of trash they left will remain without the help of composting and recycling.

Every day, Sevier Solid Waste Inc. converts over 180 tons of mixed waste, biosolids and other materials into compost. Not only does this reduce the amount of waste in landfills, but it also provides better soil and more jobs in the community.

“I think recycling has always been about trying to come up with a better use for the material rather than just putting it in a landfill,” says Tom Leonard, general manager of SSWI, “and I think as time has gone on, people realized there’s a lot more things they can get out of a landfill.”

This co-composting plant located in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. is the largest mixed municipal solid waste facility in the United States and uses over $35 million worth of equipment to keep as much waste out of the landfill as possible. They have won multiple awards for their work, such as the Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award.

People from all over the world visit SSWI and attempt to emulate the system in their own communities. Being able to physically see the difference between landfilling and composting at the facilities stirs many visitors into action.

“In a lot of communities, if you start looking at your waste streams, so much of it is compostable versus your traditional recycling,” says Laura Howard, operations manager of SSWI. “So, without composting, you are missing a huge amount of garbage that is going into your landfill.”

Currently, about 72% of waste at the facility is recycled or composted, and with the new equipment that they are about to receive that breaks down aluminum, tin and plastic bottles, that number will increase to about 85%. At that point, the only waste left in landfills would be plastic bags and other single-use plastics.

If the legislation were passed, these single-use plastics could be banned, but this is one obstacle that SSWI must face. Having a progressive system in a conservative area causes the company to struggle with getting support from local politicians and citizens.

“It’s going to have to be kind of a grassroots movement in some places,” says Leonard. “People are going to have to demand that we do something different.”

SSWI also deals with problems of maintaining their specialized equipment, as it is custom-made for the facility.

“With the digester system, it’s like baking a cake; you put too much water in it, it’s going to get too wet, but if you get it just right, you can put 200-300 tons in one of them, and we have five,” says Aaron McMahan, discharge foreman.

However, the problems with this system are not only caused by the equipment. Much of the challenge comes from people putting materials in bins that are not supposed to go there, such as hoses and cables.

According to Leonard and Howard, people in the community often do not understand or care about what happens to their garbage once it leaves their facility, so promoting recycling and composting can be a difficult task. Although, people do not realize that they will be paying more money when the landfill gets full because it will need to be hauled somewhere else.

For example, Middle Tennessee is about to face a garbage crisis, and they will have to haul garbage out to other parts of the state by truck or by train if something does not change. SSWI encourages the community to get involved because these issues affect the entire county environmentally and economically.

One way that the community can get involved other than recycling is by using compost when building anything from roads to houses, as a high demand for composting creates opportunities for more facilities to be built. Since Sevier County lost farming space, which uses much of the compost, to tourism, this is more necessary now than ever before.

Howard says that a reoccurring complaint when it comes to composting is the pungent smell, but this odor only lasts until the first rain. She calls composting a “circular recycling system” because it enrichens and strengthens soil, improving quality of plants, crops and overall life.

“All of our efforts are to protect the Smoky Mountains and the community that everyone comes here to see,” says Howard.

For more information on SSWI’s facility and to view their resources on recycling and composting, visit their website at


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