More than a quarter of all the trash Asheville throws away each year could be turned into fertilizer, according to a 2015 study jointly funded by the city and Buncombe County. Instead, that compostable material ends up mingling with discarded plastics, out-of-shape paper clips and deflated balloons to create a methane-generating mountain at the county landfill. Methane, the most potent greenhouse gas, is a major contributor to climate change.
Accordingly, the city is working on waste reduction strategies, with the goal of shrinking its solid waste stream by 50 percent from the 2014 level by 2035. The ongoing study aims to determine the feasibility of collecting all those avocado skins, greasy pizza boxes and other organic waste to create a municipal compost pile.
“A lot of people don’t realize that organic waste that ends up in a landfill never becomes healthy, usable soil ever again,” notes Sonia Marcus, director of sustainability at UNC Asheville. “Due to the way we line and seal our landfills, biodegradable matter can’t decompose as it would in a pile because it’s deprived of oxygen. That’s how the methane is generated,” says Marcus, who chairs the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment.
Several local elected officials have voiced support for a curbside composting service.
“Food and green waste constitute the largest portion, by weight, of refuse dumped into the county landfill. Meanwhile, composting is a way to retain the nutritional value of those items for use in farms and gardens. By reducing the weight of garbage, we reduce our tipping fees, which saves the city some money,” City Council member Cecil Bothwell explains.
Council member Gordon Smith says establishing some sort of composting program as a way to promote healthy soil is “a high priority” because it’s part of the city’s Food Policy Action Plan.
What would it cost?
In 2015, phase one of the study by CDM Smith, a Boston-based engineering and construction consultant, estimated that collecting and composting organic waste from residences and businesses in the county would cost about $1 million a year after factoring in the revenue from biogas sales.
“What I’d hope to see is that we can cut back on trash collection to every other week, like our single-stream recycling program, and then add the compost collection,” says Bothwell.
Phase two of the study, now underway, will more precisely estimate how much organic waste might be generated, evaluate collection system options and project future costs and landfill capacity. CDM Smith and the Roswell, Ga.-based Environmental Infrastructure Consulting are surveying grocery stores, colleges, hospitals and restaurants to estimate how much waste would be available for a potential biogas facility. At this point, it’s not clear when this phase will be completed.
Meanwhile, Waste Reduction Partners, a program of the Land of Sky Regional Council, is conducting a separate study of local industrial facilities that will provide further data. Funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, it should be completed by mid-May, says Terry Albrecht, the director of Waste Reduction Partners.
City staff is exploring a multifaceted approach to reducing the waste stream, explains Amber Weaver, the city’s sustainability officer. One possibility is a pay-as-you-throw program that would give residents an incentive to produce less trash. But it would be expensive, says Bothwell, and the city is also looking into cheaper options.
Where would it go?
While the city and county await the results of the feasibility studies, two local companies are already making a dent in the waste stream.
Danny’s Dumpster, the state’s only large-scale composting operation west of Gastonia, collects 40 tons a week of organic waste from 130 restaurants, hospitals and schools, and processes the material on a 5-acre East Asheville property leased from the city. Co-owner Danny Keaton says he knows that’s a “drop in the bucket” compared with what’s trucked to the landfill each week but that any diversion from the landfill helps.
And in case the city and/or county does opt for a residential composting program, Danny’s Dumpster wants to be ready. Keaton says he’s looking at land in Leicester, and he plans to install a waste grinder at his current facility to help save space.
“There’s got to be a place for it all to go,” he notes. “I’m trying to get to a point where I can process that waste. I’ve got to increase capacity if the city does go that route.”
Danny’s Dumpster doesn’t currently collect compostable residential waste, but it works with a company that does: CompostNow, which expanded to Asheville in 2013 from its home base in Raleigh.
For $8 a week or $32 a month, says spokesperson Nick Morrow, CompostNow will supply a bin with a lid and pick it up, filled with the customer’s organic waste. Customers are entitled to get back, as compost, half the weight of the compostable material they provide. They can also choose to donate their compost to one of eight community and school gardens in Asheville that the business is partnering with, says Morrow.
Danny’s Dumpster picks up the waste from CompostNow’s holding facility and sells its partner business finished compost for delivery to customers.
Morrow says CompostNow’s client base here has grown substantially. The company currently serves about 100 customers and hopes to triple that number by year’s end. But CompostNow is not concerned about the prospect of competition from the city, Morrow maintains.
“The thought behind the name is we’re going to act now and help you compost now, while we wait for cities and municipalities to catch up. If the city launches a municipal program and it’s part of your tax dollars, obviously there goes the residential side of the business,” he admits. “All we’re worried about is continuing to move forward and getting as many people composting as possible. And if that happens, there’s other ways we can still make money. We’re not just trying to be a compost hauler.”
Making it pay
Keaton, too, is looking to the future. He recently traveled to China to study a program there that uses black soldier fly larvae to process organic waste. In two to three weeks, these insects can do what it takes traditional composting methods five months to achieve. The Chinese processors then sell the larvae as livestock feed, turning enough of a profit that they actually buy organic waste, rather than getting paid to haul it off.
Using insect larvae as livestock feed isn’t legal in the U.S., says Keaton. But if that changes, as he expects, it could revolutionize U.S. waste systems.
Residents and businesses wouldn’t have to pay to get organic waste hauled away — they might even get paid for it. And meanwhile, commercial composters could process more material in less space.
But regardless of what happens with black soldier fly larvae, Keaton believes more cities and counties will be jumping on the composting bandwagon as space becomes ever more scarce and landfill tipping fees rise. Around here, he concedes, “There’s not a lot of economic incentive at the moment.” But the situation is different in other parts of the country: Massachusetts, for example, now has 43 composting facilities, he points out.
“That came about because of the lack of landfill space, and trucking or putting your waste on a train and bringing it to another state was getting so expensive, they had to start composting,” Keaton explains.
Right now, North Carolina has only a handful of such facilities.
Across the country, recycling rates have sat at about 40 percent of the waste stream for more than a decade, according to “State of Composting in the U.S.,” a 2014 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Comprehensive composting at the municipal and state levels could have a significant impact, the report argues.
In Asheville, 18 percent of what gets thrown away is recyclable; another 26 percent is compostable, the CDM Smith study found. Together, they account for 44 percent of what ends up in the landfill.
A 2015 estimate put the facility’s remaining life expectancy at 20-25 years, and that estimate could shrink as the population continues to grow. Still, it isn’t clear at this point whether siting a composting facility at the landfill would be feasible.
The current studies should help answer that question, but whatever they conclude, “We create an enormous amount of food waste as a society,” says Council member Smith. “Reusing that food waste is smart.”
What’s more, argues Marcus, it creates a big payoff without a lot of effort.
“Composting is a relatively easy way for us to reduce climate change impacts, extend the life of our landfill, recycle our precious organic matter into usable healthy soil, and support local businesses that are creating markets around these services. It’s a win-win-win-win.”