Recycling and a down economy help reduce waste statewide

relder@newsobserver.comFebruary 1, 2013 

  • Throwing less away Waste disposal for the year ending last June 30:
    CountyTrash, in tonsPer capita, in tonsChange in per capita trash since 1992
    Chatham34,2570.53–37 percent
    Durham252,0390.93 –21 percent
    Franklin34,2840.56–27 percent
    Granville54,5480.86–38 percent
    Harnett69,0730.69–32 percent
    Johnston206,9211.2+36 percent
    Lee48,3411–14 percent
    Orange75,9940.56–59 percent
    Wake898,5060.97–25 percent
    Statewide 9.4 million 0.989 percent
    Source: N.C. Division of Waste Management

The volume of trash North Carolinians toss into landfills each year has reached its lowest level in more than two decades. State solid waste officials attribute the dip to factors that include expanded local recycling efforts and a lingering downturn in the national economy.

Solid waste disposal peaked for N.C. residents in 2005-2006, when an average 1.36 tons of waste per person was generated throughout the state. The per-person number for the year ending in June 2012 was 0.98 ton, the second year in a row that the total has slipped beneath the one-ton mark.

“The amount of waste produced first dipped significantly in 2009, when the economy turned down,” said Ellen Lorscheider, of the state Division of Solid Waste. “At the same time, the state was putting into effect more waste-stream bans, including the one for plastic bottles. That ban brought a lot of attention to all disposal bans and disposal of waste in general.”

In the Triangle, Orange County residents reduced trash production the most over the past two decades, disposing of 59 percent less trash than in the year ending in June 1992, for a total of 0.56 ton per person.

Johnston County shrank its trash pile the least, by 36 percent, an average of 1.2 tons per person.

The state has 40 landfills that take household trash, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the state’s waste, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Industrial waste constitutes the next largest segment of trash, at 24 percent. Other categories are construction and demolition debris – which make up 11 percent of the waste stream – and debris from land clearing, which accounts for about 6 percent of waste.

Continuing purposes

Reducing trash volume helps North Carolina protect the environment and also saves money, Lorscheider said.

“One of the most important reasons to keep things out of the trash is that most things have a continuing purpose,” she said. “Whether it’s plastic bottles, the metal in appliances or precious metals in electronics, we have industries in N.C. begging for those materials.”

Barry Jacobs, chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, agreed.

“One person’s waste is another person’s raw material, and can be recycled rather than discarded,” Jacobs said.

Gayle Wilson, director of Orange County’s Solid Waste Management Department, credits an aggressive county recycling program and a citizenry dedicated to the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra with slowing the pace of landfill growth. The county has actively pursued a goal of reducing its waste going to landfills by 61 percent below 2002 figures. The recent total demonstrates a 59 percent drop.

Trash increases with industry

All Triangle counties but one – Johnston – now produce less trash per capita than in 1992, according to DENR’s figures. Johnston’s trash-per-person rate rose from 0.88 tons in 1992 to 1.2 tons in 2012, but so did its job base – by 20 percent from 2000 to 2010. Economic activity is often tied to trash production, Lorscheider said.

In comparison, the state’s average job growth was 4.5 percent. Other counties in the region had varying rates of job growth: Wake County, 8.9 percent; Orange County, 8.9 percent; Chatham County, 1.4 percent; and Franklin County, 14 percent. Meanwhile, Lee, Harnett, Granville and Durham counties all experienced job losses in the decade prior to 2010.

Because of Chatham County’s relatively small population, it produced the least overall waste, at 34,257 tons, according to the DENR.

Franklin County fell in the middle of the pack, reporting a 27 percent waste reduction over 20 years, yet it had one of the lowest per-person rates of trash disposal – 0.56. That is due largely to the lack of industry and business in the county, Solid Waste Director John Faulkner said.

Faulkner said the county has convenience centers but no curbside recycling pickup.

“Concerned people who want to do it can recycle in Franklin County,” said Wyatt McGee, chairman of the county’s solid waste task force. “But we don’t have the degree of services as some of the more progressive counties.”

Awareness and convenience

Wake County, the most heavily populated county in the area, produced more than 898,000 tons, or 0.97 tons of waste per resident.

Wake, which reduced its waste by 25 percent in the last 20 years, accepts a wide range of recyclable materials and has provided residents in some areas with 95-gallon rolling recycling carts.

The process has become ingrained for many in Triangle communities, especially for those who grew up with it.

“I remember learning about it in elementary school,” said Toni Craige, 25, of Raleigh, who now works with children at the nonprofit Full Circles Foundation. “When I lived in Seattle for a year, I became even more aware. They have such great resources.”

Lorscheider said recycling programs tend to be most effective when the service is convenient.

“Even if you have really good intentions, if you have to stockpile things and take them somewhere and separate them, you are not nearly as likely to do it,” she said.

Elder: 919-829-4528

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