There was one thing Haywood County commissioners, town officials, private haulers and county employees could all agree upon at last week’s public hearing on the budget: Someone, somewhere has to pay for the skyrocketing costs of trash operations in the county.
The argument, of course, centers around who should be left footing the bill.
Officials are still waiting to see if commissioners will shut down the transfer station in Clyde, where private and town haulers drop off trash that is then delivered by the county to the remote White Oak landfill. Closing the transfer station would save the county $940,000.
Commissioner Mark Swanger said the savings from closing the transfer station are too great to be ignored. Closing the station would prevent trash from being handled twice and would drastically cut down on equipment costs.
“These costs are so great and the potential savings are so great that they must be seriously considered,” said Swanger.
But the shutdown would also mean greater expenses for towns and private haulers who would have to drive much farther to the White Oak landfill. Those higher costs would be passed on to town residents in Canton, Clyde and Waynesville, along with county residents who arrange for private pick-up of trash. Maggie Valley, located close to the landfill, would see no change in their costs.
If the station is closed, Waynesville residents would see their household fee shoot up by $18, while commercial customers in town would see a 35 percent increase. Meanwhile, residents in Clyde would shell out 66 percent more annually.
“All of the savings that the county supposedly is making has got to be made up somewhere,” said Paul White, a private hauler.
At last week’s hearing, town officials joined in on the outcry against closing the station.
“This is not a Town of Waynesville problem. This is not a Town of Clyde Problem,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway. “This is a problem for the whole county ... It needs to be fair.”
Galloway said all county residents should share the burden of higher expenses in the solid waste department.
Residents without town pick-up drop their trash at one of 10 convenience centers stationed around the county. The county then foots the bill to haul it the rest of the way to White Oak.
Town residents, however, would be expected to ship their trash all the way to White Oak on their own dime, while the county would continue to fully cover the final leg of the trash journey for residents using convenience centers.
On the other hand, having a transfer station requires significant investment in expensive equipment to compact trash before it heads to the landfill. No such equipment is used at convenience centers.
Galloway said hypothetically, town haulers could begin dumping their trash at a nearby convenience center, or the town could even do away with trash pick-up altogether, sending residents directly to convenience centers instead. Either move would create an even bigger headache for county leaders.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick asked Galloway if he’d be in favor of a fee for towns to keep the transfer station open instead. Galloway countered by asking if the county would also charge those who use the convenience centers an extra fee.
“It’s the same difference,” Galloway said.
At the very least, Galloway said he hopes the county will give towns enough time to prepare for the changes. Earlier, the county said it might close the transfer station this fall. Now, the county estimates it will take at least until summer 2011 to prepare for the shutdown.
Commissioner Bill Upton said he’s thought about the issue as much as any issue he’s ever thought about, yet he was still struggling to find a solution.
“We’re in a no-win situation,” said Upton, adding that it was obvious the speakers wanted to keep everything the same. “I’ve heard that over and over again, but that’s still not helping the county solve our situation.”
Haywood County commissioners are fighting opposition on all fronts after a county task force recently recommended major changes to trash and recycling operations.
The central debate is revolving around a proposal that would privatize a portion of the county’s trash operations, put 15 full-time county employees out of work, and shut down a transfer station in Clyde where haulers now deliver their loads.
“The same folks that say reduce the costs are here saying save the jobs,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick at a county meeting Monday, which saw everyone from private trash haulers to county employees to regular citizens railing against commissioners.
Meanwhile, town officials in Waynesville, Clyde and Canton are none too happy about greater expenses being passed down to them as the county offloads some of its current responsibilities.
Haywood County’s budget as proposed calls for the county to outsource operations of its 10 convenience centers, where residents without curbside trash pickup dump their household garbage and recyclables.
The county also plans to lay off employees who now sort all the county’s recyclables manually. Alternatively, recyclables would be hauled away to be separated much more quickly by machine.
If both measures are passed, the county would save $431,000. However, the household solid waste fee would still increase by $22 to make debt payments on an expansion of the White Oak landfill. Without the cost saving measures, those fees would jump up by $40 per household this year. The fee is currently $70.
Most controversial of all, though, is the suggestion not yet incorporated into this year’s budget: closing the county’s transfer station in Clyde.
For now, the transfer station offers town trash trucks and private haulers a one-stop shop. It’s where they drop off recyclables and where they offload trash, which the county then delivers the rest of the way to the White Oak landfill.
If the proposed changes are passed, all haulers would be forced to make the long trek out to the landfill, located off exit 15 on Interstate 40.
Though shutting down the transfer station could save the county $940,000 annually, opponents say the costs would still be passed down to customers in one form or another.
“It’s more expensive on the private haulers, it’s more expensive on the towns,” said Paul White, a hauler from Maggie Valley, who also criticized the county for excluding the towns and private sector from its solid waste committee, which came up with the recommendations.
“It’s going to affect everybody in this room, not just me,” said Roger Henson, a private hauler who handles trash pick-up for the Town of Clyde. “Reconsider this, because I’m telling you, it’s going to hurt.”
Dan Best, an employee on the recycling pick line facing a layoff in less than two months, argued the commissioners are sending money away from Haywood.
“Keep it in-house, keep it in Haywood County, and make Haywood County a viable place,” said Best.
Joy Garland, town administrator for Clyde, was caught completely off-guard by the county’s proposal.
“We just learned about this. It kind of comes as a little late in the budget year,” said Garland. “We’re just trying to put our numbers together at this point ... My board is not in favor of it, I can tell you that.”
Henson said if the transfer station in Clyde closes, his costs would skyrocket by 66 percent from having to make the long haul out to White Oak multiple times a day. The increase would be passed on to his main client, the Town of Clyde.
“We knew it would impact us, but had no idea 66 percent,” said Garland, who anticipates town residents seeing their household fees shoot up from $9 to about $15 per month.
Over in Canton, closing the transfer station would cost the town about $115,000 a year in new equipment. That translates to monthly fees jumping from $8 up to $13 per household.
Al Matthews, Canton’s town manager, said the town would seriously consider privatizing its own operations.
“We could probably contract for service cheaper than we could pass that cost on to our customers,” said Matthews.
Waynesville residents might see their household rate rise from $5.50 per month to $8 a month if the county shuts down its transfer station.
Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway said the town would need to acquire two new rear-loading garbage trucks and hire a new employee to shuttle trucks between curbside collection crews and the larger trucks bound for the White Oak landfill.
There also would be more wear and tear on the trucks, requiring more diesel fuel and more service, as well as an additional set of tires annually, Galloway said.
Driving to White Oak instead of the transfer station in Clyde would also add an extra 27,000 miles annually to each truck in Waynesville. The total cost increase annually for the Town of Waynesville would come out to $199,000.
Galloway said he couldn’t speak for his town board, but that he would prefer to see the county fee set higher to keep the transfer station open.
The Town of Maggie Valley, which is much closer to White Oak than its neighbors, is unfazed by the county’s proposal. Adding four miles to their private contractor’s journey each way will not result in a price hike.
“They might have to leave town a little bit earlier than if they were taking it to the transfer station,” said Tim Barth, Maggie’s town manager. “That would be the only difference.”
Maggie Valley residents can expect their household fees to remain steady at $8.24 per month.
Barth said the town decided to get out of the trash business in 2003 after growing tired of maintaining and replacing expensive equipment — not unlike the county’s current quandary.
At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis reiterated that the proposal is far from a done deal, while Commissioner Mark Swanger said shutting down the transfer station would streamline the process and prevent trash from unnecessarily being handled twice.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Kevin Ensley expressed confidence that the private sector would somehow pull through.
“I believe the entrepreneurs that haul the trash now will find a way to make money,” said Ensley. “I really do.”
However, Best said if the county invested adequately in the department, solid waste director Steven King could run it more successfully.
“If he had the backing of the commissioners, they can make this place go,” said Best.
Faced with a tall and growing stack of bills in the solid waste department, Haywood County commissioners are seriously considering offloading part of county trash and recycling operations to private companies.
Whether it’s the $4.5 million spent to expand the White Oak landfill, expensive equipment sorely in need of repair or replacement, environmental fines incurred by the now defunct Francis Farm landfill, or a relentless rise in recycling without staffing to sort it — county commissioners have just about had enough.
The equivalent of 15 full-time employees would be out of a job as early as July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, if the outsourcing plan is enacted. Commissioners have yet to vote formally on the drastic change in county operations, but Commissioner Kevin Ensley says the board seems to be in agreement thus far.
“We’re pretty much going to be doing this,” Ensley said.
A solid waste task force has examined every facet of the issue and recommended the following:
• Privatize the county’s 10 convenience centers, where residents without trash pickup dump household garbage and recyclables, a move that would save the county $145,192.
• Eliminate the pick line at the recycling center where employees sort recyclables. Instead, haul recyclables — other than cardboard, paper and metal, which can be more profitable to sell — to another county to be sorted by machine. Citizens will be encouraged to sort their own recycling. Projected cost savings: $286,166.
• Eventually close the transfer station in Clyde some time this fall. Towns with trash pickup and private haulers would have to take loads directly to the White Oak landfill. Residents can still drop bulky items, metal, cardboard and paper in Clyde, however. Projected cost savings: $940,000 annually.
The first two recommendations may take place as early as July 1, though the transfer station shutdown will have to wait until the landfill is prepared for increased traffic. It would need a redesign to keep the public separated from heavy dump trucks and improvements to the dirt roads, which are passable only by four-wheel drive in the rain.
Even if the first two recommendations are implemented, the solid waste fee would still shoot up from $70 to $92 per household this year. County leaders say that the fee would jump even further to $110 if they don’t contract services out to private companies.
“We can’t ask our people to pay much more,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.
“Now would be the best time for us to go down this path,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger, who anticipates soliciting proposals and bids from contractors in the very near future.
Haywood leaders have already been in discussions with one Tennessee company and two North Carolina companies so far.
Furthermore, county leaders are exploring the option of private management of the landfill and have not completely ruled out selling the property.
“If they brought up the idea, we would listen,” said Stephen King, solid waste director for Haywood.
A devastating week
Last week, King had the difficult task of calling his employees at the recycling center together to announce that they would likely lose their jobs in less than two months.
King ran down to most of the county’s 10 convenience centers to personally deliver the bad news to workers there.
“It’s a very difficult predicament to be in,” said King. “I felt personally if I didn’t let them know, I would be doing them a disservice.”
Regardless, workers at the pick line are still deeply disappointed in county leaders.
“A lot of them have worked for some time,” said Dan Best, a pick line worker. “It’s just devastating for the people.”
With an unemployment rate at about 12 percent in Haywood County, Best said commissioners are sending much-needed Haywood jobs out of the county.
Larry Boone, an employee at Hazelwood convenience center, said he felt “uneasy” about the potential of losing both his job and benefits. Some of the savings from a private company taking over would likely be a result of lower wages and fewer benefits.
Though convenience center employees like Boone have a real chance of being rehired by the private companies that take over, it’s another story for the pick line workers at the recycling center.
“I have a lot of compassion for the employees,” said King, who said the gathering at the recycling center brought tears to his eyes. “I’m right here working with them.”
Ensley said he, too, hates to see job loss but pointed out that the county’s recommended budget is 2.5 percent lower compared to last year’s budget, reducing the size of government and saving taxpayers of Haywood County more money.
“I’m not comfortable with us losing jobs, but I’m more not comfortable with raising the fees and taxes,” said Ensley. “I would rather keep those as low as we can.”
Benefits of privatizing
Commissioners have depicted privatization of trash and recycling operations as a direct path to efficiency.
The county’s current system is decidedly antiquated compared to what private companies devoted solely to solid waste accomplish every day.
King said it’s been difficult trying to fix equipment so old that he has to call all over the country to find parts.
“It’s a lot of cost involved to get yourself updated,” said King. “We’ve just scraped by for so many years in trying to utilize everything we can.”
Most private companies can compact garbage far more tightly, which could mean a doubling or even tripling of the landfill’s capacity, according to Swanger.
Shutting down the transfer station would save the county from ferrying loads of trash to the landfill. “The least amount of times we can touch something, the more money you save,” said Upton.
County residents, however, would not be forced to make the long trek out to White Oak — located at exit 15 off I-40 — and would still be able to dump bulky items, like couches, at the Clyde facility.
Town and county residents may have to begin sorting recyclables since the county will ship off certain recyclables but keep paper, cardboard and metal in-house.
For now, blue bags containing those products would still be hauled away to be sorted by machine, even if they contain paper, cardboard or metal.
King pointed out that using a machine would be vastly more efficient than having employees pick through mountains of blue bags manually.
“If we’re able to process two tons a day, they’re able to process eight tons an hour,” said King.
According to Dan Best, a recycling pick line employee, the commissioners would not save taxpayer money in the long run.
“It’ll be just as expensive or more expensive,” said Best. “They’re using that for an excuse, and it don’t hold water...What they’re after is to get it out of their hair.”
It would cost more to haul away recyclables than sort them here, Best said, adding that contractors may initially offer attractive deals, but they would jack up prices once they’ve secured an agreement.
Swanger disagreed, arguing that the county would carefully construct contracts with private entities to protect the taxpayers from such price increases.
Paul White, a private hauler in Haywood County, agreed with Best, adding that the move would actually harm small businesses and private households in the end.
Hauling trash directly to the landfill rather than the transfer station would prove taxing for his vehicle, since access to the landfill can be especially difficult during bad weather, and construction debris like nails often damage tires there.
White said he’ll have to pass on the cost for upkeep to his customers, some of whom are already having trouble paying for the service with the poor economy.
“That pretty well puts me out of business,” said White.
Though the county planned to meet with private haulers to discuss privatization, White is skeptical about how much voice he and his fellow haulers will actually have.
“They already know what they’re going to do,” said White. “This is just a token meeting.”
Not a philosophical decision
County leaders openly support the idea of privatizing the landfill, but they stop short of touting privatization as the answer to all of government’s problems.
“This is not a philosophical discussion,” said Swanger.
King said it’s not a matter of government’s ability, but rather of adequate funding.
“I think government can do jobs as well and sometimes even better as long as it’s properly funded or maintained through the years,” said King. “If we’d started from day one funding the whole aspect in a different matter, I think we’d be in a little bit different shape.”
Privatization isn’t the best option for every county department in Swanger’s view.
“I think it’s function-specific. There are things that only government can do that cannot be logically privatized: law enforcement, emergency services, education,” Swanger said. “Many things government does and does well. There are other things that can have better results with a public-private partnership.”
Swanger said the proposed solution for solid waste would create such a partnership, with regular reviews, scrutiny and compliance ensured by county officials.
Haywood County Solid Waste Director Stephen King did not spend his interview with The Smoky Mountain News sitting at an office, pointing to encouraging recycling statistics.
Instead, King was constantly on the go, picking up a stray glove he spotted on the ground, ripping off plastic wrapping from a cardboard box headed to a recycling pile, and even sorting recyclables, taking the place of an employee as she chatted with the reporter.
King has personally learned to use all the equipment at the Materials Recovery Center in Clyde, where the county’s recyclables are hauled.
As many already know, King’s utter devotion to the cause does not wane after the workday is done. He’s known to spend his spare time picking up recyclables, just like he did with his dad as a young kid.
King says it’s difficult to see a mess without wanting to clean it up.
“It’s just a conscious effort, what I believe in, the way I think people should be,” said King. “I want to take something nobody else wants and make it a valuable commodity.”
Though King is modest about his role, it’s clear his wholehearted commitment to sustainability has given Haywood County an immense leg-up in increasing recycling.
“When the boss gets interested, that makes a big difference,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.
Haywood now ranks 11th in the state for total amount of material recycling, averaging 212.9 tons per capita, according to 2009 statistics from the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources.
A mere two years before in 2007, Haywood County ranked 63rd out of 100 counties in the state. Since then, Haywood has practically doubled its per capita recovery of recyclables.
King said the citizens are the ones who deserve congratulations, not him.
“It’s not a one-man show, it’s a community effort,” said King.
Commissioner Mark Swanger said people are becoming more aware of the benefits of recycling and simply want to do the right thing.
“As generations grow up, it becomes a natural thing to do,” said Swanger. “It’s something they’ve always done.”
Government is certainly taking up the cause as well, with a state ban on plastic in the landfill passed in October 2009 and a landfill ban on discarded computer equipment set to take effect in April 2011.
Local county and town governments have worked to promote recycling to citizens through presentations, newsletters and educational materials online.
The Town of Waynesville is expecting to set its own record for recycling this year. From July to December 2009, the town picked up 157.2 tons of recyclables. If residents continue recycling at this rate, the town might break 300 tons at the end of the fiscal year in July 2010.
In comparison, Waynesville residents recycled a total of 173.6 tons for the entire 2004-2005 fiscal year.
Town Manager Lee Galloway said he’s personally observed an increase in recycling in his own household. Galloway and his wife recently put out their garbage before heading for a walk and realized they only had one bag of trash and two bags of recycling.
“Between what we put in the recycling and what we put in the compost, it really cuts down on what we put in the can at the street,” said Galloway.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley said he hadn’t educated himself on recycling until just last year. Until then, he didn’t realize citizens could recycle more than cardboard.
He went straight to Sam’s Club and bought himself two large trash cans to add to the one he already had for paper.
With seven people in his household, Ensley says he’s seen the number of trash bags he takes out decline from six a week to just two.
“It’s amazing, really,” said Ensley, who became convinced recycling was the way to go when he thought of all the space that recycling would save in the county landfill that taxpayers support.
“I’m not really an environmental-type person, I’m for keeping tax rates low,” said Ensley.
For those who are less than concerned with saving the environment, recycling advocates are likely to bring up two economic arguments to sway the debate.
Material that isn’t recycled heads to the landfill, which has finite space and which costs taxpayers to expand. A new cell at Haywood’s landfill cost almost $5 million and is projected to last five years. Recycling can add two years of life to that figure.
The second argument that’s routinely brought up by advocates is that recycling supports American jobs.
The county’s recycling center has five full-time employees devoted to sorting the steady stream of recycled materials that flows in. Then, there are the haulers who either bring recyclables to the facility or tow them away after they’ve been separated and compacted into enormous “bales.”
After them are those who work at plants that process recycled material, including many in North Carolina and nearby states like Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.
“Recycling supports jobs in every one of these states,” said King.
Despite Haywood’s incredible success story with recycling, the picture’s not all rosy, as is evident as soon as one walks into the Materials Recovery Facility in Clyde.
A sea of blue plastic bags holding recyclables greets the eye and overwhelms the imagination at the MRF. It’s difficult to picture workers actually making progress, sorting through that mountainous heap.
In the face of a shocking surge in recycling, Haywood’s MRF has not gained, but actually lost employees in the past few years.
“We, in some respects, are a victim of our own success,” admits Swanger, who along with Upton serves on the county’s solid waste task force.
Robin Ledford, pick line operator and supervisor, can attest to that. She’s seen a jump from 4 to 6 tons a week of recyclables to 20 to 26 tons a week since she started working at the pick line three years ago.
The pick line is situated in an enclosed area above the heap of blue bags and mammoth bales of already sorted recyclables. It is reminiscent of the factories of yesteryear, where workers planted themselves in front of a conveyor belt all day, engaging in highly repetitive work.
An unsorted mess enters the room on the conveyor belt, as employees situated on either side of it work furiously to toss materials into one of four bins either beside them or across from them.
The quickest and most experienced employees take care of the front of the line, and the unsorted mess gradually becomes manageable as it moves forward.
A magnet sits at the end of the line to pick up some of the recyclables as well. It cost the county $23,000, but saved the county $18,000 in just the first year, according to King.
While the county says its studying needs at the MRF, Ledford and her co-workers are not shy about expressing their own opinions.
“We need help, but the county doesn’t seem to think we do,” said Ledford. “It’s stressful. It gets to you sometimes ... Everybody there gets depressed because it keeps piling up.”
Sometimes, workers are pulled from other departments within solid waste to help keep up with the never-ending tide of recyclables.
Sheriff Bobby Suttles has devoted as many as eight inmates to help out, but recently inmates haven’t been coming to the MRF.
Ledford demands that all commissioners — along with citizens — immediately take a tour of the facility. “They really don’t see what we do,” said Ledford.
However, Swanger said the solid waste task force is actively pursuing solutions to the problem. It’s just too early to say what action the county will take.
“I think it will be a while because it’s complicated,” said Swanger. “There’s much research to be done.”
Several presentations on solid waste have been made to the county board over the last few years, but the lion’s share of discussion is still taking place within the study committee.
For now, possibilities include privatizing various aspects of solid waste, including hauling recyclables from the MRF. Swanger assures employees these discussions are entirely premature. “We don’t want to scare employees, [but] we have an obligation, I think, to explore all possibilities.”
The option of hiring more employees to deal with the surge in recycling is not off the table, Swanger added.
Upton said there’s not only a need for additional staff, but also for a director of recycling.
In Ensley’s view, it would take a while before the county could add any staff to MRF.
“We’d have to have some growth in the economy to be able to add a position,” said Ensley. “We might be able to move some people laterally.”
While the need for a solution is obvious, some disagreement among commissioners exists over just how profitable recycling can be.
According to Swanger, recycling extends the life of the landfill, but it is generally not a profitable venture.
“In the long run, it does save money, but the actual selling of the commodities that are recyclable are not profitable,” said Swanger.
Ensley, however, said recycling could potentially be a moneymaker, and the more citizens recycle, the more recyclables the county can sell.
King also defended recycling’s potential for generating revenues. According to him, the recycling sector, like many others, is experiencing a down market, which has cut into revenues. The county could see more revenue if it invested money to improve operations and fix equipment that’s long sat unused at the recycling center.
A forklift has been sitting at the MRF for a year, waiting to be fixed, while a baler is approaching 20 years of service.
“Everywhere you turn, there’s equipment down like that,” said King. “You show me a piece of equipment in a business that’s 20 years old ... In a business, you gotta stay with the times.”
Paul White, a hauler from Maggie Valley, concurred with King, emphasizing that there’s only one baler in the recycling building that’s now operational.
“If it breaks down, they’re up the creek,” said White. “Stephen King is probably doing the best he can with what the county gives him to work with — but it ain’t enough.”
Despite recycling’s many demonstrable benefits, there will always be a sliver of the population opposed to it, Swanger said.
Ledford has witnessed that opposition up close. She’s come across some “inhumane” items in her line of work, including dirty diapers, cat droppings, needles, and bagged dead animals, like a dead possum just last week.
Ledford doesn’t believe it’s an accident. “There’s no way you should get raw meat in your recyclables,” Ledford said.
Commissioners Swanger and Ensley were taken aback upon hearing about Ledford’s experience.
“Whether a person takes the time to recycle or not is one thing,” said Swanger. “But to protest against recycling is irresponsible.”
Ensley said he had not heard of such occurrences before. “That doesn’t really make any sense,” said Ensley. “You’d have to be really illiterate to do that.”
King, however, doesn’t want to pay attention to the slight minority that opposes recycling. For the rest of the world, it’s become almost fashionable to recycle or pursue sustainability.
King said he usually hates trends, but can’t deny the benefits of moving away from being a “throwaway society.”
“Most people are realizing we can’t have the same mentality of use, use, use, dispose, dispose, dispose,” King said. “They’re understanding we have to preserve some.”
Haywood Community College shot to the top in a nationwide recycling competition by doing little more than what it already does to promote sustainability.
More than 600 colleges signed up for RecycleMania across the country, recycling and composting more than 84 million pounds of material in just 10 weeks.
In HCC’s first year entering, it ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 19 in the country in its category of Waste Minimization, in which schools compete to see which produces the least amount of municipal solid waste (both recyclables and trash) per person.
By the end of the 10 weeks, HCC weighed in with about 19 pounds of trash per person. In comparison, Ursinus College, which ranked last in the category at No. 199, had a cumulative result of 200 pounds of trash per person.
In the first week, HCC sent more than 1,900 pounds of paper, cardboard, aluminum and plastic to the recycling center, as well as 3,500 pounds of scrap metal.
More than 500 pounds of wood were salvaged from the campus to be reused and over 100 pounds of food waste from the café were added to HCC’s compost pile.
Alan Morrow, HCC Campus Arboretum Team Leader, who led the effort, said the college did not have to start from scratch to succeed in the competition. It already had a compost pile, and students and staff have been trained to use recycling bins, located in every classroom and building.
“Participating in RecycleMania is just another way to highlight what HCC does every day to incorporate sustainability into campus life,” Morrow said.
The recession has been good news for landfills.
Due to the economic downturn, less trash was thrown in landfills in North Carolina last year than any year in the past two decades. The biggest reduction in trash came from the construction industry, which is a significant contributor to landfills.
Trash in landfills amounted to 1.07 tons per capita in 2008-09 — a sharp decline from the previous year and the lowest disposal rate since 1995, according to the “North Carolina Solid Waste Management Annual Report.”
The report also found that:
More glass, plastic and aluminum were recycled than ever before. One reason for the uptick in recycling could be the new state law that went into effect in 2008 requiring any restaurant with an ABC permit to serve beer or alcohol must recycle.
Curbside recycling programs had better numbers than recycling at drop-off centers. The report recommends increasing state oversight to prevent banned materials from making it into landfills, including aluminum cans and plastic bottles.
When it comes to landfills, rain isn’t just inconvenient — it’s dangerous.
In 2009, the White Oak landfill in Haywood County had to contend with more than 35 million gallons of rainwater seeping into disposed waste.
While 80 percent of that rainwater is absorbed by the trash, the remaining 20 percent transforms into a contaminated liquid called leachate, which poses significant environmental and health risks.
The region saw about 62 inches of rain last year, falling just three inches short of the 1973 record. And if the rain wasn’t bad enough, the county got 22 inches of snow in December.
“It’s just a constant battle out there,” said Stephen King, waste director for Haywood County.
The White Oak landfill collects its leachate into a pool then hauls it to a wastewater treatment plant, an endeavor that alone cost $56,000 during the previous year when the region was in an extreme drought.
According to King, each inch of rain produces about 27,000 gallons of water — per acre. The landfill presently takes up 21 acres and is about to heap on 8.8 acres more.
“We had to double the capacity of the leachate pond just to accommodate the new cell,” said King.
The county faces several alternatives that might help lower costs in the long run. They include housing an internal wastewater treatment or running a sewer line directly to the wastewater plant that already exists.
Denese Ballew, landfill manager for Haywood, said both options would be costly, but the county is in the process of doing a cost-benefit analysis of the latter, less expensive option.
“You have to have the cost to justify doing something like that,” said Ballew, pointing out that not every year will be as wet as 2009.
Federal law mandates that landfills properly treat leachate, and state laws are even more stringent, according to Ballew.
Modern landfill designs include liners and leachate collection systems, but almost all landfills that opened in North Carolina prior to 1993 have neither. Groundwater contamination continues to emanate from these unlined facilities. Another volatile byproduct from landfills is the build-up of methane gas from decomposing trash.
Haywood County hopes to alleviate both problems by installing a methane collection system at the old, unlined Francis Farm landfill. Extracting methane might also help keep contaminated water in check.
“If we have a positive suction on the landfill, we can prevent the water from migrating away,” said King.
It may be illegal to throw away plastic bottles in North Carolina these days, but don’t expect a landfill patrol to start picking through your trash any time soon.
The state is still trying to divine how exactly to enforce the law, even though it’s been three months since the ban on plastic bottles in landfills went into effect.
“The was no way that I or my attendants were going to play trash police,” said Joel Ostroff, Macon County’s recycling coordinator. “Nobody in their right mind would sit there and say ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to have you go through every bag that comes in.’”
For now, the game plan for recycling directors involves more encouragement than punishment. They’ve been educating residents on the law rather than threatening them with fees for noncompliance.
“We believe we’ll get better cooperation if we’re not forcing people to do it, but are asking them to join us and cooperate with us,” said Ostroff.
That strategy has worked well so far, as recycling directors in WNC reported residents are increasingly recycling plastic.
“We’ve increased our amount of plastic by a ton a week,” said Stephen King, recycling director for Haywood County.
“People are recycling probably twice as much plastic as they were initially,” said Charles Bailey, supervisor of Swain County Waste Management.
Before the law went into effect, less than one out of every five plastic bottles were recycled in the state.
State lawmakers passed the plastic ban primarily to meet growing demand from companies that utilize recycled plastic in North Carolina and the Southeast. Rather than buying the plastic from elsewhere, these companies could use recycled plastic generated in state.
But there were other motives for passing the law, including environmental benefits and job creation.
“We support a lot of American jobs through it,” King said, adding that Haywood has five full-time positions devoted to recycling.
While landfills can be fined up to $15,000 for not complying with regulations, including the plastic bottle ban, incidental amounts of plastic are allowed.
“It’s extremely unlikely that anybody from the state will look inside anybody’s individual trash cans,” said Steve Mouw, the state’s recycling director. “[But we] may start looking at loads of garbage from commercial facilities.”
Initially, there was confusion over whether the law would apply in places like Swain and Jackson counties, which ship their trash out of state rather than operating a local landfill. But the ban does apply to transfer stations where trash is collected before being shipped out, Mouw said. No North Carolinian is exempt from the ban.
King said many have called him confused about the law, and others have even tried to hide plastic bottles in their trash bags, which puzzled King.
“It takes more effort to hide it than recycle,” King said.
For those who are regularly mystified about what can be recycled and what can’t, King has a general recommendation.
“When in doubt, put it in the recycling bin,” said King. “If it’s definitely something we can use, we’ll use it.”
Associated Packaging Technologies in Waynesville, which uses recycled soda and water bottles to make frozen food trays and bowls, is anxious to see how the law impacts business.
“We’re cautiously optimistic on how it pans out,” said Tony Gallo, director of sustainability for the company. The state is right to treat bottles as a resource, Gallo added.
“You can either reuse that resource or you can do what we’ve done historically and that’s bury it in the ground...that’s a waste,” said Gallo. “We’ve invested a lot of resources to make it the first time and to be able to reuse it is the right way to go.”
While many recycling coordinators regularly make presentations to schools and businesses, certain demographics still aren’t getting the message.
“There’s always those people you’re never going to reach no matter what you do,” said Joel Ostroff, Macon County’s recycling coordinator.
The worst recyclers, according to Ostroff, are between 18 and 40, since that age demographic is more likely to be focusing on careers and raising families than recycling.
The solution lies in educating students early on about the benefits of recycling, so that more adults retain the recycling habit throughout their lifetimes, Ostroff said. The earlier students are educated about recycling, the more likely they are to retain their recycling habit.
One is a new law that just took effect Jan. 1, and the other is a hoped-for statute that we believe is absolutely necessary for the continued prosperity of Western North Carolina. Both are good for the region.
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
Landfills in North Carolina should become a lot emptier due to a new law requiring nearly 8,000 restaurants to start recycling alcoholic beverage containers.