Waste reduction and smart design help extend landfill life

DO NOT CROSS: Lyman Street in the River Arts District is one of the many places in Asheville where construction is booming. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Landfills tend to fall in the “out of sight, out of mind” category — unless you’re living next to one. But Buncombe County’s recent move to prepare additional landfill space for both construction and municipal debris is a reminder that such facilities have a finite life and are expensive and politically challenging to replace. Realistically speaking, they can never truly be out of mind.

The county’s 604-acre landfill at 85 Panther Branch Road in Alexander is divided into five areas serving different functions. Among them are one for municipal solid waste (residential and commercial trash) and one for construction and demolition waste. The municipal area consists of 10 cells, and cell 6 is almost full, says Solid Waste Manager Kristy Smith. The construction area comprises eight units, called phases, and phase 6 is nearly filled.

Accordingly, on Feb. 15, the county commissioners approved a $12.3 million contract with Sargent, an infrastructure company based in Stillwater, Maine, to prepare the 13.5-acre cell 7 and the 5.5-acre phase 7 for use.

In both areas, the individual units vary in shape and size, notes Smith. Construction — which includes clearing the topsoil and vegetation, excavating rock and installing several liners to prevent groundwater contamination — began in mid-March. Sargent will also oversee the installation of collection pipes and a pump system to remove leachate, the contaminated water that percolates through the solid waste. The county expects to begin using both units later this year, Recycling Coordinator Cassandra Lohmeyer reports.

Keeping up with growth

Construction-related permits offer a window into a community’s growth and development. Between 2018 and 2021, the total number of permits issued for new construction, remodeling and repairs on both residential and commercial buildings increased 13.8%, from 7,693 to 8,708, says Bob Haynes, the county’s director of permits and inspections. Building permits, which are required for new construction costing more than $15,000, rose from 3,176 to 3,776 during that period, he says.

But increased activity inevitably creates more waste. In 2018, more than 90% of construction debris nationwide stemmed from demolition, according to an Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, with the rest resulting from new builds. Buncombe County’s landfill was opened in September 1997 with a life expectancy of 35 years. To track the accuracy of that figure over time, the county assesses its anticipated construction waste and remaining landfill space annually, says Smith.

And so far, notes Lohmeyer, those projections have held up well. “We initially accounted for a larger rate of population growth and the subsequent increased [construction waste] that accompanies this.”

Once phase 7 is opened, the county expects it to last 5 1/2 years, says Smith. And overall, the construction area definitely has some life left in it. “Phases 7 and 8 should give us another 20 years or so, we hope,” she tells Xpress. That’s because phase 8 is both “a horizontal and vertical expansion that will tie multiple phases together and use vertical capacity,” Lohmeyer explains.

And whenever the construction area does fill up, that waste flow will just be diverted to the municipal area. “The master plan that we have in place now is gonna carry us forward a long way into the future.” Smith predicts. The municipal area, notes Lohmeyer, is also projected to last another 20-22 years.

Minimizing impact

Nonetheless, amid the area’s continued growth, Smith stresses the importance of reducing construction waste.

“More people are moving here, and we have more waste coming,” she points out. “In my experience … when building is booming, disposal seems to accelerate, and recycling doesn’t match that. It’s just too fast and convenient to throw it all away.”

To counteract that, the county has implemented several diversion strategies, says Lohmeyer. Concrete and wood are recycled on-site; the county contracts with Curbside Management to sort and find end markets for recycled aluminum, steel, tin, mixed paper and other materials.

Certain types of metal are accepted at both the landfill and the transfer station at 190 Hominy Creek Road in West Asheville. “When people are renovating their homes, if they’re extracting aluminum siding or ripping out fixtures, we can accept that,” notes Lohmeyer.

Commercial haulers pay $43.75 per ton to dispose of loads containing less than 5% recyclable materials. Beyond that threshold, those materials must be recycled, and there are hefty penalties for failure to do so. Both businesses and residents can dispose of recyclables at the landfill or transfer station for free. Uncontaminated cardboard can also be disposed of for free; contaminated cardboard is subject to a full price fee.

In addition, the county cuts its disposal fee by 50% for uncontaminated brick and concrete, which are taken to a separate area of the landfill to be ground and reused.  That, says Lohmeyer, is “a huge money saver for builders.” But it also means “an enormous volume and weight” of construction material are diverted from the landfill, thereby extending its useful life.

The facility includes a special area for depositing wood debris: untreated lumber, branches and stumps — but not furniture, which is usually made of treated wood. “We can turn wood and yard waste into mulch, and we turn around and sell that mulch to the public,” Lohmeyer explains.

Local businesses such as Asheville Mulch Yard and Biltmore Iron & Metal Co. give area residents additional options for recycling certain materials.

Build smart

But while the county’s recycling programs can help, it’s ultimately up to builders and their contractors to reduce the total volume of construction waste. One way to do that is by using prefabricated walls that are sized to produce the least amount of waste.

Compact Cottages, an Asheville-based builder of modest-sized homes, began fabricating wall sections off-site about a year ago, says founder Barry Bialik. The move reflected both the small parcels the company typically builds on and a desire to “offset the surge-in-construction crisis,” he explains.

Ideally, construction workers would choose the correct size lumber for the task at hand and cut it so as to generate minimal waste. But “It doesn’t always work that way,” says Bialik. “Generally a construction worker is going to reach for the most convenient piece, and a lot of times that means they’re cutting bigger pieces for smaller things.”

As a result, he continues, “You fill up a lot of dumpsters when you’re doing house construction, and it’s a waste, because it’s good, expensive lumber.” Bialik says he regularly sees construction sites “throwing away 10%-20% of the lumber” purchased.

To reduce this figure, Compact Cottages now builds all its wall sections at a factory in Asheville with machinery that creates “right-size fits” based on the dimensions of the lumber being used. The company’s Instagram page includes a photo of two boxes filled with wood debris. “Those little bins were all of the waste we had from framing 12 houses,” he says proudly.

This approach gives builders two ways to save: by buying less lumber to begin with and paying less to have waste hauled away.

Structural solutions

Another local business, Deltec Homes, employs a similar strategy, prefabricating wall panels at its factory in the Emma neighborhood. “Repeatable processes,” says company President Steve Linton, have enabled Deltec to divert more than 80% of its construction waste from the landfill. In 2016, Deltec achieved B Corp certification, which requires meeting specified environmental and social standards.

“We have a definite advantage in that we’re making everything that is part of the structure of the home off-site,” he explains. “When we find a source to recycle a particular material, we can do it over and over again and have a clear process for it, rather than trying to do that on a job site time and time again.”

Deltec donates excess plywood, insulation and siding to the Asheville affiliate of Habitat for Humanity for sale in its ReStores. Smaller pieces of scrap plywood are given to wildlife organizations, which use the material to make nest boxes for barn owls and houses for the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel.

But to substantially reduce construction waste, stresses Linton, all builders will have to make a deeper commitment to sustainability, retooling every aspect of the construction process to make recycling as easy as possible.

“It takes training the subcontractors and having bins at each location so people know where to put things,” he explains.

Specialized dumpsters, notes Linton, would enable builders to easily sort recyclables on-site, creating “a one-stop solution.” He sees this as a potential business opportunity. “Maybe there’s an entrepreneur who could figure that out, because I think it would be great.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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