Trash statistics skewed by second-home residents

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Macon County’s trash is a growing problem, says Chris Stahl, director of the Macon County Solid Waste Department.

The department set a goal last year to reduce waste production from 1.05 tons per capita to 1 ton per capita largely by encouraging recycling; instead, waste production increased to 1.15 tons per capita.

“We’re continuing to go in the wrong direction,” Stahl said during a Macon County League of Women Voters meeting held last Thursday (July 17).

The reasons for not meeting the waste reduction goal? Transients and increasing development, Stahl said.

Second-home residents do not count as part of Macon County’s population, but do contribute to the waste levels. Consequently, per capita amounts are skewed. Stahl said that based on his estimates, waste tonnage would decrease to less than a ton per capita if second-home residents were figured into the equation.

However, Stahl is less ready to lobby for second-home resident inclusion in calculating the county’s recycling rate. This year was the fourth straight year Macon County was ranked among the top five counties for recycling in the state, with a rate of 345.78 pounds per capita. The rates, calculated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resource’s Waste Management Division, also do not include second-home residents as part of the population and thereby their efforts are attributed to locals.

Regardless of who gets credit for what, last year the county recycled about 7,370 tons of its more than 37,000-ton municipal solid waste and construction and demolition waste stream — approximately 20 percent.

“For us that’s a pretty significant number,” Stahl said.

With that rate, the county essentially will get another year of life out of its landfill for every five years that pass, Stahl said.

The solid waste department still hopes to increase recycling rates and reduce waste disposal overall by encouraging conservation. Workers at the county’s convenience centers and at the landfill are taking the initiative to pull recyclables from people’s trash.

Also, there are state-proposed recycling mandates on the horizon including those affecting “e-waste,” such as computers and monitors and cables, and a new law that forces businesses with an ABC permit to recycle their beer and wine bottles. While the law sounds great, it might have a detrimental effect on the market, Stahl said.

Companies such as FCR, a recycling company owned by Casella Waste Systems Inc., buy recyclables to resale on the open market. Recyclables have been at an all-time high, the result of simple economics — low supply, high demand. If that supply increases faster than the rate of demand, the price could drop.

But that’s no reason to stop recycling, Stahl said. If anything, people who don’t recycle should start.

“Pick one thing,” Stahl said. “Try to get yourself started.”

If you get a daily paper, make a pile and take it to the recycling center at the end of each week. If your family produces a lot of empty aluminum cans such as those containing soda and beer, recycle those. Every little bit counts.

When landfills close, they can become dangerous producers of methane gas, a potentially explosive gas formed when organic materials decompose in an oxygen free environment. To prevent explosions, landfill operators must allow the gas to escape, most traditionally by piping down into the trash and installing passive vents, which release the gas into the atmosphere.

However, methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. And since methane is a denser gas than carbon dioxide, it prevents heat from escaping the atmosphere, making it an even greater cause of global warming.

That’s why, when officials running the Mitchell/Yancey county joint landfill noticed that methane gas was leaking out of the landfill, they decided to do something about it. A member of the local Soil and Water Conservation board heard of a methane gas recovery project in Florida that actually put the gas to use.

The community devised a plan that soon became the first glass blowing and pottery-making operation in the world fueled by landfill gas. In addition to the craft studios, the EnergyXchange, as the landfill site was named, hosts Project Branch Out, a greenhouse system heated by landfill gas. Native plants such as rhododendrons are grown in the greenhouses, helping alleviate the harvesting of wild plants. The facility provides an educational component as well, as high school students often serve as greenhouse apprentices, getting hands-on experience that may lead to a career path.

“There’s value in your garbage,” said Clifford Vinson of the Xchange, who also spoke at the League meeting.

Now, similar projects are underway in Jackson, Buncombe, Avery and Wilkes counties among others. Whether such a project is viable in Macon County is undecided.

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