Buncombe County looks for ways to extend life of landfill

DAILY GRIND: A compactor at the Buncombe County landfill packs a miscellany of garbage into the ground in an effort to make more room for the county’s trash. In FY 2018, an average of 16,500 tons of garbage was transported to the landfill per month. Photo by Joe Pellegrino

Perched atop a mountain of garbage, a monstrous, multiton machine funnels trash under its cleated wheels, using its weight to grind trash bags, mattresses, planks and discarded clothing further and further into the reddish soil. An operator drives the vehicle back and forth along a ridge of refuse. On a neighboring slope, another compactor is fulfilling a similar role as workers unload garbage from trucks and spread it along the surface of the human-built plateau.

The compactors are harnessing gravity to make room for more trash, which in fiscal year 2018 poured into the Buncombe County landfill in Alexander at an average rate of 16,500 tons a month.

Buncombe County has used about a third of the total 12.5 million cubic yards of space available to receive municipal solid waste, which the department tracks separately from waste produced by construction projects. At its construction and demolition landfill, which sits on the same property but is sorted separately, the county still has about 1.3 million cubic yards of fillable space out of a maximum capacity of about 2.4 million.

The county’s landfill opened in 1997, and Buncombe County Solid Waste Director Dane Pedersen says the most recent analysis shows that the facility has another 34-40 years of space left. The C&D landfill, meanwhile, has about 14 1/2 years left on its lifespan (see sidebar, “Starting from scratch”).

As factors like population growth and a booming economy increase the volume of garbage heading to the landfill, the county is employing a variety of techniques to eke out more space for the public’s detritus, Pedersen says.

‘The cereal bowl’

From the parking lot of the property’s administrative building, the landfill looks like a massive, treeless range of hills looming in the distance. Seen from this angle, grass covers a series of smooth, rounded mounds, which are circled by a well-worn ring of dirt roads.

On the far side of the hill, trucks travel back and forth through deep tire impressions in the mud, carrying waste to a growing pile in zone six, which is the largest of the landfill’s 10 zones. Once all zones have been constructed, the landfill will cut across a 95-acre swath, curving into an L-shape. The C&D landfill currently consists of five cells, and officials have proposed building it out to a total of eight cells.

”It’s all a game of how much can we squeeze into the cereal bowl,” says Aaron McKinzie, the landfill’s power plant manager. “Obviously, we want to fill that up as much as we can and we’re only allowed to put a certain amount in there.”

While much of the trash ends up in zone six, county operators also continue to fill in parts of the other zones as long as they can meet the terms of their permits from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates the size and angle of the slopes. The county recently received permission from NCDEQ to increase the steepness of the zones, which Pedersen says created 825,000 cubic yards of additional space. “It’s a big deal for us,” he says.

Crews are also able to add a little more room in the individual zones through the county’s bioreactor project, which speeds the rate of decomposition and methane production by pumping water into the mounds of trash.

The process shrinks the mass to make room for more waste, and the excess methane gas that seeps off the rotting garbage gets siphoned through pipes into a generator, which burns the fuel to produce electricity. “If the trash sinks, then we can come back and scrape the dirt off the top, and we’ve got, hey, like 60 more feet that we can put garbage on,” McKinzie says. Pedersen says the county was able to gain one additional month of capacity, about 15,000 to 17,000 cubic yards, in calendar year 2018 as a result of this project.

The county also separates materials that take up space or are dangerous to store at the landfill, including metal, wood pallets and old televisions and electronics.

In addition to the food, packaging and plastic bags that get tossed in the garbage by residents, McKinzie says the landfill sees a lot of byproducts from construction and demolition projects, which go to a different part of the property than the household trash. As the county has recovered from the 2008 housing crash and recession, which led to a dip in tonnage going to the landfill, McKinzie says construction waste has steadily increased.

The amount of construction and demolition waste transported to the Buncombe landfill hovered between 20,000 and 27,000 tons per year from FY 2011-16, according to figures reported to NCDEQ. But in 2017, the total jumped from 26,560 tons to 44,680 tons, a nearly 70 percent increase. The total remained above 40,000 tons in FY 18, the last year for which NCDEQ has reported figures.

Meanwhile, household waste transported to the MSW landfill stayed between 100,000 and 117,000 tons per year from FY 2010-17. In FY 2018, the figure leaped to almost 140,000 tons, a 35 percent increase over the FY 2017 total of about 104,000 tons.

In calendar year 2018, Asheville’s waste made up about a sixth of this figure. Last year, city facilities sent 23,367 tons of waste to the county landfill. Jessica Foster, the city’s solid waste manager, says Asheville’s sanitation division collected 22,718 tons of residental trash, the majority of which ended up in the landfill. She says the city experienced a slight decrease in residential waste in 2012 when the city rolled out its blue single-stream recycling carts.

“Since then, we have primarily seen small increases in waste sent to the landfill each year,” she says. “This could be attributed in part to population growth in the city, and in part due to a lack of resources to implement and promote more robust waste reduction programs.”

Road trips

A growing proportion of county trash, Pedersen says, arrives at the landfill by way of the Buncombe County Transfer Station, a facility on Hominy Creek Road in West Asheville that serves as a more convenient drop-off point than Alexander, a 30-minute drive to the north.

“You’ve seen the landfill,” says transfer station manager Nick Edmonds. “It can be a muddy mess. You have nice concrete here.”

When the county determined the location of the landfill in the 1990s, county residents complained about the distance between Alexander and the rest of the county.

To ease the burden of the long haul along the French Broad River, the county opened an expansion to the transfer station in September 2018, adding a building to deal exclusively with commercial garbage. Since the expansion opened, Edmonds says, the amount of waste the station is permitted to handle per day has increased from 350 to 1,200 tons. “You can fit about four of the old buildings into the new building,” he says. The old building, which sits closer to the entrance of the property, is now reserved for residential trash.

In the lower level of the new expansion, thousands of pounds of trash pour through two rectangular holes in the facility’s floor. A county truck, which has been maneuvered into position by way of a tunnel beneath the warehouse, catches the stinky mass as it tumbles through the opening. The driver nonchalantly checks his cellphone as tons of waste spill into the truck bed behind him, rattling the vehicle like an earthquake.

Each truck can carry about 20 tons per trip, just a portion of the hundreds of tons transported from the transfer station to the landfill each day.

New expectations

Every week, trucks emblazoned with the Waste Pro USA logo travel across hills and along back roads to collect the garbage produced by about 31,000 customers who live in disparate parts of the county.

Waste Pro’s contract for trash and recycling collection in unincorporated parts of Buncombe County ends on Dec. 31. County staff members issued a request for proposals for the new contract on Jan. 18 and plan to analyze bids with members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners through April 30.

During a work session on April 2, Pedersen told commissioners that the county received two proposals: One from Waste Pro USA and the other from Santek. Because Santek did not adequately fill out its proposal, the company’s bid was disqualified. The county is now negotiating a new contract with Waste Pro, which commissioners will likely vote on in May.

The county’s new RFP includes monetary penalties for missing pickups of customers’ trash. In the case of one to 10 misses in a month, the company will pay $200 per miss, for example. The penalties grow harsher as the number of misses increases.

Pedersen began tracking customer complaints after he started as the county’s solid waste director in 2018. From May 29, 2018, through Jan. 22, 2019, the county received more than 200 complaints from subscribers. The majority of those complaints had to do with Waste Pro missing garbage or recycling pickups.

Waste Pro’s Ron Pecora says 200 complaints is “minuscule” as a proportion of the company’s pickups in Buncombe County, which number over 60,000 each week. “Frankly, most customers take the service for granted just like phone, cable, power and other typical utilities,” he adds.

Waste Pro has invested $19 million since 2010 into its Buncombe operations center, which employs about 80 people, Pecora says.

In a Jan. 31 interview, Pedersen said the decision to include a penalty provision (which wasn’t a feature of the RFP issued in 2010) reflected new industry standards rather than deficiencies in the service provided by Waste Pro.

“I feel like it was really based on the fact that we need to have those accountability measures in the new contract, and it’s expected. It’s not negotiable that the service provider, the new contractor, complies with the performance standards and is collecting waste and recycling in the appropriate manner,” he said.

About 4,000 respondents weighed in on a survey about characteristics residents hope to see in a trash collection provider. About 61 percent of respondents reported that they live in unincorporated parts of the county, the area in which the contract covers.

Of those respondents, about 53 percent gave Waste Pro a rating of 7 or above (on a scale of 1 to 10). 48 percent said missed trash collection would be their biggest complaint about a service provider.

According to the county, the survey results also indicate that there’s a clear need to provide better education about recycling. 31 percent of respondents said they are not sure what to recycle or how to recycle. 87 percent said they would like the county to provide recycling services for all people living in unincorporated parts of the county.

Wishful recyclers

Curbside Management, which handles a significant percentage of the recycling in Buncombe County and other counties in Western North Carolina, spends almost $10,000 a month in tipping fees to dump in the landfill waste that can’t be recycled through its network of buyers.

“It’s just those wishful recyclers,” says Nancy Lawson, who co-owns the company with her husband, Barry, “and I love them because they really are trying to do the right thing.”

“Wishful recyclers” is Nancy’s term for locals who toss items into their recycling bins even if they’re unsure whether a particular item is recyclable. “That causes us all kinds of inefficiencies,” she says, and makes it necessary for the company to separate the nonrecyclable waste, bundle it and ship it to the landfill.

The kinds of recyclables Curbie can accept are “100 percent dependent,” Nancy says, on whether the company has a factory or manufacturer close enough to use the material. Curbie trucks its recyclables within a five- to six-hour radius of Asheville. Anything the company can’t sell to reclaimers ends up in the landfill.

Pedersen says the county sends 7,000 to 7,500 tons of recyclables per year to area recycling centers. Otherwise, that tonnage would end up in the landfill, contributing about another 15 days worth of refuse to the annual total that goes into the ground. Fostering a strong recycling system is another way that the county is trying to make room.

“As far as we’re concerned, landfill air space is one of the most precious resources that we have in the county,” Pedersen says, “and we want to manage that appropriately.”

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About David Floyd
David Floyd was a reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press.

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One thought on “Buncombe County looks for ways to extend life of landfill

  1. Dana Brown

    Thanks for the update on our landfill capacity. I was also glad to see you point out that just because you put a recyclable item in the appropriate bin, that does not guarantee that item will be recycled. I think many folks don’t realize that. The growing concern about single-use plastics and China’s refusal to buy our “contaminated” loads of recycling points to the need to better educate our citizens on the fate of the waste we create. I would like to see a more robust message on keeping organics out of the landfill, too.

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