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Plastic throwaways escape Missoula landfill, littering hillsides above I-90

Posted at 11:52 AM, Mar 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-11 13:52:50-04
Missoula Landfill
Fences surrounding the landfill can stop most garbage like cardboard boxes. But they can’t stop those ubiquitous plastic bags. (photo credit: Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

-Laura Lundquist reporting for the Missoula Current

MISSOULA – Thousands of plastic bags covering the hills between Interstate 90 and the Missoula landfill make a compelling argument for banning plastic conveniences.

Winter makes everything a bit more difficult, including managing Missoula’s garbage. Normally, Republic Services’ North Hills landfill is barely noticeable behind the graded dirt slope above the interstate. That’s not the case right now.

The fence along the crest of the hill bordering the landfill and the trees on the slope below appear to be densely hung with prayer flags or laundry. But closer inspection reveals the vast majority of the garbage is plastic bags and pieces of plastic stuck on the fence and grass. It’s not a pretty sight.

Republic Services general manager Glenda Bradshaw said she knows about the problem – in fact, she predicted the mess before it happened and warned the Missoula City-County Health Department.

“It was kind of the perfect storm, pun intended, with these wind gusts and then the arctic weather that made it difficult to remediate it between events,” Bradshaw said. “Over (last) weekend, we had 15 and 20 mph wind gusts. If you go up there, there are 7-foot drifts.”

The storms that came through over the past few weeks made normal operations difficult at the landfill.

First, workers are required to cover the garbage with 6 inches of soil every night to keep garbage from blowing around and to keep animals out. But the frozen dirt they’ve had to use recently doesn’t stick as well as moist dirt.

Then, workers usually cover the dirt with a tarp about the size of a football field. But that’s not a safe thing to attempt when high winds are predicted, Bradshaw said.

“It’s going to kill someone on the highway or one of my employees. It’s a huge tarp, so it would not be something you want flying around,’ she said.

Fences surrounding the landfill can stop most garbage like cardboard boxes. But they can’t stop those ubiquitous plastic bags.

“Even in a moderate wind, plastic bags are the bane of our existence. The wind will pick them up like a little kite. Even on a good day, we’re chasing those things all over the place,” Bradshaw said.

When she alerted the health department before the storms, Bradshaw said she was tempted to ask when the city and county might start a dialogue on banning plastic bags.

In August, Missoula adopted its Zero By Fifty plan, under which the city will have zero waste within 50 years by using only sustainable materials that can be recycled. Part of the plan directs the city to “explore restrictions on single-use disposables like plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam.”

At the state level, Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, sponsored a bill in the Legislature to require stores to charge a fee for shoppers who wanted plastic bags, but it was tabled in committee.

Republic Services employs workers from Opportunity Resources to help clean up after big storms. But it was too dangerous to have them go out along the icy highway during the snow and cold temperatures of the last few weeks. Bradshaw said they were finally able to get started on Friday.

“We take it very seriously. We want the landfill to look just like a hill. We never want people to see trash,” Bradshaw said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at