Could Orange County prevent thousands of tons of organic waste from being buried in landfills – and instead turn it into something of value?
The county’s Solid Waste Advisory Group is now exploring that possibility. The group has made reducing solid waste one of its top priorities, said Barry Jacobs, SWAG chairman and Orange County Commissioner.
Organic materials removed from the waste stream can be used to produce compost or in sufficient amounts even biogas, while reducing the overall waste that’s landfilled.
“We thought this is a tremendous area of opportunity,” Jacobs said.
Waste that’s “organic” – anything that was once alive, including textiles and some shoes – now represents about half of all Orange County’s solid waste collected, according to a 2010 study. Food waste, specifically, represents about a fifth of the total 53,805 tons of waste collected in fiscal year 2013-2014.
Aiming to lower that tonnage, the group sought insight from international food waste collection expert Janine Ralph. A senior environmental planning manager at international engineering firm HDR, Ralph offered a public presentation on food waste recovery options earlier this month.
The county’s smaller size limits the options for getting value from its organic waste, Ralph said.
Even through curbside food waste pick-up, as other municipalities have launched, the county could recover only 3,000 to 5,000 tons of organic waste – and likely no more than 10,000 tons per year, even with peak program effectiveness and including other organic materials such as textiles, paper fiber, and additional yard waste, Ralph estimated.
In contrast, an organic waste collection program would need to generate at least 25,000 tons per year for infrastructure investments like biogas production to be viable, Ralph said.
Orange County, the towns and university already do several things well: yard waste collection, commercial food waste composting, recycling, and popular solid waste drop-off centers.
The county prevented 17,150 tons of yard waste and food waste from even entering the landfill last year, through programs like leaf collection and commercial food waste collection.
All told, recycling and compost programs have reduced Orange County’s per-capita waste 64 percent from the 1991-92 base year used for measuring progress.
Residents visit solid waste drop-off centers an average of 10 times per year, and can drop off their own compostable waste at the Walnut Grove Church Road center.
What does this mean for enhancing organic waste recovery?
Ralph suggested increasing the number of drop-off sites for household food waste, enrolling more businesses and schools in food waste-to-compost programs (a “no-brainer,” she said), or even doing a detailed feasibility study of the costs and benefits of curbside organic waste pick-up.
Pooling resources with another entity might also make renewable energy production more feasible, Ralph said.
OWASA Sustainability Manager Pat Davis said he attended the presentation to learn more about biogas production at wastewater treatment plants more feasible. One way is to add food waste fats, oils, and greases – which could be collected curbside.
“One of the possibilities that our board of directors is looking at is how do we beneficially use all of the biogas that we produce at the wastewater treatment plant,” Davis said.
Treading new ground
With SWAG still formalizing its partnership with the university and UNC Hospitals, as well as orienting newly elected Chapel Hill representatives, Jacobs couldn’t predict when SWAG will take next steps on organic waste diversion.
But Ralph pointed out that SWAG’s exploration of organic waste recovery makes Orange County a pioneer – as a relatively low generator of waste, based in the South, and not legally mandated to recover organic waste.
“To be quite frank, to have the community considering what they want to do with diverting food waste and organics ... it’s being somewhat ahead of the curve,” Ralph said.
“You’re treading new ground.”
Most U.S. municipal or state organic waste diversion programs are based in larger cities on the west coast or in the Northeast, she said. Many programs are driven by high landfill tipping fees or shortage of landfill space – and North Carolina faces neither of these constraints.
So why explore diverting organic waste? It’s still a cost consideration, as well as as a moral one, Jacobs said.
“For every pound of waste you divert, you don’t have to pay for fees for hauling ... it’s cheaper, as well as environmentally more sound … (that’s) the closest thing we have to a ‘driver,’” Jacobs said.
Jacobs also acknowledged the fraught history of landfills in Orange County. The Orange Regional Landfill, located in the historically black, working-class Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood, opened in 1972, despite community protest, and remained open until 2013, placing Orange County at the center of a debate over environmental racism.
“(That history) affects everything,” Jacobs said.
“I think we’re highly sensitive to siting issues, and to the broadest possibilities of government responsibility.”
Waste-reduction efforts could also help prevent the possibility of ever opening a new Orange County landfill, Jacobs said.
“We’re just trying to get as far to the front of waste-reduction technology as possible,” he said. “And to do it in a cost-effective way, and an environmentally just way.”
Did you know?
Orange County operates recycling programs for the commercial sector, however these services have limited coverage. Where available, Commercial Recycling services are provided at no direct cost to participating businesses. Call 919-968-2788 to find out if your business is eligible for the commercial recycling program or organics collection program described below.