It could be that tiny fairies or Mother Nature herself dropped a little “green” dust on our budding environmentalist when she was just a baby. Whatever the case, Tonia Olson has been doing what is right for the world around her since she was a young girl.
The proverbial apple didn’t fall far from the generational tree. Olson was preceded first by grandparents and then parents who all had a mission to keep Mid-Michigan’s Irish Hills clean and green. Olson’s family ran a landfill business for the community.
“My grandfather opened the landfill the year I was born,” said Olson, smiling proudly. “I actually used to ride in the big truck in my baby seat. It’s easy for me to be passionate about the environment — it’s in my blood.”
Growing up green had its advantages. Family scavenger hunts ended up becoming Olson’s first recycling efforts.
“I had very fond memories of collecting aluminum with my mom and brother,” she said. “It was like a game.”
The foundation her family provided helped to set the groundwork for a life full of questions, education, passion, pride and spunk. Once Olson’s grandparents retired, her parents bought the landfill. Olson worked there when she was in high school. Her views on consumption and proper waste storage were forming at a very young age.
At a time when regulations were changing and the cost of running a landfill was increasing, Olson was learning how difficult it would be to change behaviors. When she had to deal with an irate customer who was upset about the cost of disposal, she gave him something to think about.
“I was frustrated with him, and I finally said, ‘how much did it cost for the stuff you bought to accumulate this much trash?’” Olson said. “‘Don’t you want to be responsible and pay fairly for disposing of it properly?’”
Olson’s family eventually left the business, but Olson was hooked. Although she originally thought she would work in the world of hospitality, she finally decided to give in to her passion. A meeting with a counselor and a move to a dual degree program set Olson on the green-filled path.
With degrees in resource development, and agricultural and natural resource communications, Olson was set to go back to her roots. Prior to graduation, she went home to a public hearing regarding a landfill. She knew when the woman from the Environmental Protection Agency lost control of the meeting that she had found her calling.
“People were fearful and out of control because they didn’t have the information they needed to understand the situation,” she said. “She wasn’t able to communicate it effectively. Even then, I knew I could do a better job.”
Olson boasts that she knew exactly what she wanted to do in college and is actually working in the very position she desired.
“I talk trash!” she said. “It’s my passion.”
Olson cared about the environment — before it was the “in” thing to do.
After college in 1991, Olson worked at her alma mater, Michigan State University, then moved on to the City of Lansing before getting her dream job at Granger. As the director of governmental and community relations for the last 13 years, Olson has shined while showing off Granger’s commitment to the environment and the community.
“I really just love what Granger does. It makes resources out of trash,” she said. “It really works like this … Granger takes yard waste to compost, provides recycling to make new products and develops landfill gas into energy.”
Olson said that she gives tours of the Granger Landfill compound all the time. Granger maintains an extraordinarily clean and odor-free environment that works like a well oiled machine. Visitors take tours frequently, and many educators and environmental enthusiasts have given the Granger Landfill a high rating.
Most individuals believe that the landfill is the most pungent area; however, Olson said that the composting area really is the culprit. Compost is considered vitamins for the soil. Granger takes the “good stuff” and sells it to local companies like Hammond Farms.
“We have large poles surrounding the area, and they put out a mist to control the really strong odor,” she said. “It’s a good dose of Febreze for the air.”
When the Granger trucks pick up trash, it is taken to a very sophisticated landfill system. The trucks have positive Christian messaging on them. Olson contends that the founder, Ron Granger, wanted those stopped behind a garbage truck to have a positive experience.
It’s positively remarkable what landfills can do these days. Landfills are complicated structures divided into 10 to 15 acre portions called “cells.” Granger digs the hole down to the clay level, at least 10 feet from the water table. A synthetic plastic liner is installed and the cell is developed with a gentle slope to a drain. The liquid is pumped to the City’s Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“The cells are constructed like a bathtub — impenetrable and sloped,” Olson said. “When garbage goes in, it’s truly like making a layer cake.”
In order to make the layers, garbage gets dumped into the cell as high as 15 feet. High tech trucks with GPS compact the trash so that every inch of landfill space is used. Olson believes that the technicians don’t need the GPS because, after so long, they’ve developed a sixth sense.
The landfill gets a set of vertical and horizontal pipes installed that captures the gas created as the waste decomposes. The gas is taken to an on-site gas generation station that burns the gas and sends the green energy created to local users, including the Lansing Board of Water and Light.
“When the cell is full, we close it up like a Ziploc bag and it generates gas for 20 to 30 years,” Olson explained. “It’s a beautiful situation. The City’s trash makes power for things to move forward.”
Olson’s passion for the environment is clear, but she wouldn’t consider herself fanatical. She finds it fascinating that the environmental movement has advanced so much since the ’80s.
“When people become fanatical, it’s like anything else; they usually don’t keep it up,” she said. “For me, I do what is practical in my world. When I bring my lunch to work, I take reusable products and take them home to wash them. If I’m at a picnic, I’ll bring paper products that will break down. It’s practical.”
So much like the health industry, Olson said the information is always changing, meaning it’s hard to keep up, and individuals are often confused and annoyed. Olson believes in providing information that offers choices.
“Unfortunately, with environmental issues people usually let fear and emotion make the decision for them and we rarely talk about the choices that are available,” she added. “We always hear it is black and white, and it rarely is. I’ve learned so much, and my passion is giving people and legislators information.”
Each day, Olson does a little something to conserve the world.
“I’m definitely an outdoorsy girl. My dad was a charter fishing boat captain and I would go out with him,” she said. “I am part of the conservation movement and am always concerned about the proper use of our natural resources.”
Although Olson currently lives in a suburb with her husband, she grew up in a small town on 80 acres and prefers to spend time in the wilderness up north or on the water or, at the very least, in a park.
She and her husband, Bob Olson, didn’t meet on the water or in a park. As fate would have it, they connected at a wedding reception where he was the disc jockey and she was the maid of honor. After much chatting, he had enough information to find her in the phone book the next day. A call and a date that night, and the rest is history.
“He made the first date faux pas — he ordered crab legs,” she laughed. “We talked and talked. It was wonderful. I went home and told my roommate that I met the man I would marry.”
They say opposites attract. Bob doesn’t exactly share a passion for the environment, but they do cherish family, friends and fun. Olson did admit that Bob — being a gadget guy — installed a programmable thermostat.
“Bob tries hard, but he just isn’t into it,” she laughed. “I was into worm composting, and he thought it was great because it was a great conversation starter when entertaining.”
Olson loves entertaining and hanging out with family and friends at her home in Holt. She does yoga and is a baker who actually creates her own recipes. And, when she isn’t teaching classes on composting, she takes classes on how to become a better outdoors woman.
Through the program she learned more about hunting, fishing, snowshoeing and mountain biking.
“I love fly-fishing because it is so peaceful in the middle of the river with my waders,” she said. “Actually, I probably would be great just standing in the middle of the river relaxing.”
When it’s exercise she is seeking, the kayaks may come out of storage and take a four-hour tour of the Mid-Michigan countryside. The trip Olson usually takes is through the Ingham County Burchfield Park, where you get transported to Eaton Rapids for the launch. The scenic tour ends up back at the park.
Olson said that she and Bob travel extensively and often take their niece, Sophia, along for vacations. Very soon, she will be travelling to China for a visit.
“Bob laughs and makes fun of me because, when I’m on vacation, I always take pictures of how people take care of their waste,” she said. “I can’t help myself.”
Tags: City's Wastewater Treatment Plan, eco chic, environment, family, Granger, green, landfill, landfill energy, Lansing Board of Water and Light, Mid-Michigan's Irish Hills, outdoorsy, recycling, Tonia Olson