In “By the Numbers,” a new, occasional series, the Smithfield Herald analyzes numbers to discover trends in the county and explain them to readers. The aim is to give Johnston County residents more information about where they live, how the county got here and where things could go next. This week, we look at the trash the county generates and the state of Johnston’s landfill.
Despite its population growth, Johnston County in 2012-13 produced less trash than it has in years.
In 2008-09, the county generated 201,537 tons of trash, including what’s called “municipal solid waste” – the trash from homes – and “construction and demolition waste” – basically what’s left over when a builder finishes a house.
Since then, landfill volume has fluctuated but hovered around 200,000 tons; it was 206,921 tons in fiscal 2011-12. But last year, the volume of waste plummeted to 162,283 tons.
“We don’t know why that happened,” said Rick Proctor, the county’s solid waste manager.
The economy might have been a factor, he said. In a downturn, people buy less and, therefore, throw away less.
But that’s just speculation, Proctor said.
The volume total includes trash sent to Johnston’s landfill and waste generated here but sent to landfills in other counties.
“It’s not following the trend of the last five to seven years,” Proctor said.
“As you see, it’s increasing,” he said, pointing to volume totals from recent years. “And then last year, it just took a dive.”
Proctor suspects the 2012-13 was an anomaly. “I’d love to know why it took a drop,” he said. “When we ask our neighboring disposal sites, they’re not seeing that difference, so it’s almost as if Johnston County quit disposing of almost 40,000 tons of waste.”
It’s possible too, Proctor said, that the county’s businesses are finding ways to produce less waste. For example, a company could have found a more efficient way to package its product, or perhaps it embraced recycling.
“This kind of number shows that the businesses are doing something on their own too,” Proctor said.
In Johnston County, recycling is on the rise. In 2011-12, Johnston residents recycled 1,633 tons of materials. The next year, the volume reached 2,178 tons, reflecting a new state law that banned electronics from landfills.
Last year, recycling stayed about the same, at 2,177 tons. Electronics accounted for about one-third of the total.
The landfill’s future
Unlike almost every other county in North Carolina, Johnston has a landfill with both time and space to spare.
Proctor estimates the county could go another 100 years before exhausting its current landfill space, which is located off of N.C. 210 near Swift Creek.
“We’re king of in a unique condition that very few counties are in,” he said. County Commissioners here “thought well in advance years ago and put all of this property in place,” he said.
The Johnston County landfill opened in 1972. In 2003, the county opened the area that it’s currently filling in. That area will last another six years; at that point, the county will have to open another area in the landfill site.
Funding the landfill works in a counterintuitive way: The less trash people send, the harder it is to fund operations.
The landfill’s roughly $5.1 million budget comes almost entirely from the “tipping fee,” the money haulers pay per ton to drop trash at the landfill. Currently, the tipping fee is $33 a ton, plus a state tax of $2 per ton.
“We have a minimum threshold of trash we need to accept, and that’s (to pay) for stuff like electricity and fuel and to man individual stations at a minimum level,” Proctor said. “Once we drop below that threshold, we’re in a negative-revenue scenario and we’re going to have to start looking for additional sources of revenue. That’s where we’re at right now.”
That revenue crunch is why County Commissioners agreed recently to accept up to 100 tons of trash daily from other counties. Durham is now sending about 40 tons a day, and Johnston is in talks with Wake and Harnett counties.
The landfill does have other revenues sources, including money from recycling and sales of electricity from a plant that converts methane into electricity. But that revenue is small compared to the tipping fee.
Each town deals with its trash and recycling differently. Some pick up both, while others pick up only trash. Some towns have their own garbage crews while others contract with private companies. Also, many residents of rural Johnston purchase a decal that allows them to carry their trash and recycling to one of the county’s solid waste convenience centers.
Smithfield handles its own garbage collection and has been doing so for at least 75 years, said Lenny Branch, director of public works.
Smithfield households pay $26 a month for garbage, recycling and yard waste. On average, the town picks up about 200 tons of yard waste each month, 390 tons of household garbage and 8 tons of recycling.
While most Johnston towns have turned trash collection over to private haulers, Smithfield has been reluctant to do so.
“Sanitation, if you get out of it, it’s really so expensive to get back in; you can’t get back in,” Branch said.