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.”