Pilot program brings bear-resistant garbage cans to Asheville

SNACK TIME: As much as this black bear may want a midday feast on table scraps, keeping bears away from trash is one of the most effective ways to reduce human and bear interactions, says Colleen Olfenbuttel of the NC Wildlife Resource Commission. City residents can now request bear-resistant garbage containers through a new pilot program. Photo by Mike Carraway, courtesy of NCWRC

One man’s trash is another bear’s treasure — just ask the four-pawed critters that feast on table scraps, leaving shredded garbage bags and capsized cans in their wake. 

But beary good news is on the horizon for Asheville residents tired of the constant garbage battle. On Nov. 10, Asheville City Council authorized the city’s sanitation division to purchase 340 bear-resistant trash carts for customers to rent on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The program has been in the works for at least a year, explains Sharlene Raines, a customer service representative with Asheville’s sanitation division. But budget concerns due to the city’s COVID-19 response temporarily delayed its launch. The initial bulk order of carts — each costing $220 plus shipping and tax — was funded by $81,000 from the sanitation division’s 2020-21 operating budget; a $10 monthly upcharge for residents who opt into the program is expected to recoup that cost after two years. 

As of Nov. 24, 280 of the 95-gallon canisters had been claimed by individuals, while 18 containers had been reserved by condominiums and other properties that share a waste collection account, Raines says. The trash carts will be distributed in early 2021 to residents who commit to a one-year rental. 

Bear-resistant trash cans are among the most effective ways to keep bears from becoming habituated to people, says Colleen Olfenbuttel, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Over a third of the calls that the NCWRC receives about bears come from Buncombe residents, the vast majority of which concern trash cans and bird feeders. 

“Our garbage is a wonder of smells for a bear,” Olfenbuttel says. “The odors from garbage attract bears, and they are rewarded when they can easily access the trash. Once they are rewarded with access to the trash, they will keep coming back and will lose their natural wariness of people, which can lead to safety concerns both for bears and people.” 

Other municipalities located near natural bear habitats, including Gatlinburg, Tenn., have citywide ordinances requiring residents to use a bear-proof trash container. While such a mandate isn’t on the table for Asheville, Olfenbuttel says that even a handful of animal-resistant garbage cans in an area makes a big difference. 

“Even if only one person on a neighborhood street has a bear-resistant trash can, it is a visible way to teach their neighbors what can be done to live with bears,” she explains. “Plus, I suspect that their neighbors will want one after growing tired of having to clean up their scattered garbage from their nonbear-resistant trash container.” 

Madga Mendoza, who lives in Kenilworth, was thrilled to hear about the city’s new program and plans to place an order for an animal-resistant container soon. Bears frequently visit her home, she explains, and she’s afraid someone may try to hurt the animals.

“This is their home, we’re the intruders,” Mendoza says. “The very least we can do is protect them from our messes.”

Buncombe County residents with Waste Pro contracts also have a bear-proof option: The company offers animal-resistant canisters for a one-time $300 payment or a $9.50 monthly rental fee. Approximately 1,100 bear-resistant carts have been distributed to unincorporated Buncombe County residents, says Chip Gingles, Waste Pro’s divisional vice president for North Carolina, and several hundred more canisters are in stock at the company’s Asheville facility. Since the deployment of bear-resistant trash carts in Buncombe County, notes Solid Waste Director Dane Pederson, there appears to have been a reduction in the number of garbage-related bear encounters.

If a new trash can isn’t an option, residents can retrofit existing containers with bungee cords or carabiners to deter bears from breaking in, Raines says. Minimizing food waste, freezing food scraps until trash collection day and storing garbage cans inside are other simple steps to reduce bear encounters. 

“We obviously live in bear territory, and they’re not going away anytime soon,” Raines says. “We need to figure out a way to continue providing service to all of our customers and find a way for us to live and conduct business alongside the bears. Hopefully this option stays, and hopefully, it grows.”

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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8 thoughts on “Pilot program brings bear-resistant garbage cans to Asheville

  1. Curious

    How do these bear-resistant carts work with the vehicles that lift the carts up and turn them upside down to empty them?

    • Jarrod

      Spring loaded rolling ball bearing latch release for the automatic versions. When the garbage truck tips the bin vertically the bearing rolls to activate spring release of latch. The manual versions essentially lock and unlock the lid with a door knob type locking mechanism. Having owned the automatic version for a few months now I can honestly say it was well worth the money to eliminate the worry of bears raiding the can. The City’s rental program however is severely overpriced comparative to buying one outright.

      • Curious

        Thanks for that info. Do we know if the City permits an individual owner to purchase this new type of can outright?

  2. Shawn

    Cheaper solution (if you own the type of trash can pictured) is to close the cover and drill a hole through the closed cover and lip of the container, and use a long padlock. Previously I installed a “bear proof” strap which worked for a couple of months before being broken by a bear. ( they are smart). My homemade padlock solution has worked for over a year with out a $300 fee or monthly rental.

    • Curious

      And when do you unlock the padlock so the garbage truck can lift it up, turn it upside down, and the lid open so the contents empty?

  3. Shawn

    Sorry, I forgot to mention I take my trash to the Panther Branch landfill every 2-3 weeks which is convenient and less expensive than Waste Pro. So I unlock it then or when I add to the container. If I still subscribed to Waste Pro I would unlock it the morning of trash pick up.

  4. Robin

    The WastePro bear can didn’t work for me at all, so there was garbage scattered in my woods constantly
    (my bears could open it, sometimes carrying it into the woods). I use my old bear can (lock inside a raised knob)
    all week then move bags to the regular Waste Pro can on pickup morning. A pain to move them, but no extra money
    paid. Oh, and my old bear can is tied to a tree, because my bears have moved it into the woods more than once –
    couldn’t open it though. I rented it from WastePro for 5 years before the new ones. Never had
    it opened.

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