A decade ago, North Carolina set a goal: By 2001, reduce the amount of stuff we throw into landfills--the "waste stream," as you may have heard it called--by 40 percent. How're we doing?
In a word, terrible.
Not only are we not down by 40 percent, we're up. Worse, after a few years of fits and starts, we're now moving so swiftly in the wrong direction that state solid-waste officials were unusually blunt in the annual report they issued last month: "It is obvious," they wrote, "that the state will not reach its 1991 goal of a 40 percent decrease. ... In fact, 2001's disposal rate may be close to a 40 percent increase when compared to 1991."
If percentages don't register with you, try this: A decade ago, we put about 7 million tons of solid waste a year into landfills here and in neighboring states. In fiscal year 2000, the total was well over 10 million tons.
Ten million tons. Folks, that's more than one ton of stuff apiece, because there are only eight million people in North Carolina. What's going on? Aren't we all recycling?
No, we're not.
Two things jump out of the statistics from the new state report. First, the fastest growing part of North Carolina's waste stream is "C&D"--construction and demolition waste. It accounts for almost one-third of what we throw away, despite the fact that most of it could be recycled at a profit.
Second, the county-by-county breakdown shows wide variation across the state and in the Triangle as well. Some counties are doing better at waste disposal. Some aren't.
On a per capita basis--that is, setting aside the varying population-growth rates--Wake County was our local laggard, with waste disposal up 26 percent the last nine years, while Orange County was best, with disposal down 33 percent. The figures in tons of waste last year per person are: Chatham, 0.84; Durham, 1.17; Orange, 1.36; Wake 1.29.
Note that we are not using the word garbage, which would imply that what we're tossing out has no value. For more on that subject, we visited Orange County and a formidable fellow named Pete Hendricks.
Hendricks and wife Robin are a team. They deconstruct buildings and recycle what's in them. Pete's been doing this for 30 years, ever since he got out of the Marine Corps. Robin "married into the business" 20 years ago.
Robin isn't shy. But Pete is the storyteller. He's a published author (The Second War, a book about Vietnam) who likes to say--pointing dramatically to his head--that until about five years ago their neighbors in Wake Forest thought he was a little "tetched." But now they're thinking he might not be such a nut after all. Heck, with that big white beard and arms to match, he might be some kind of visionary.
The Hendricks are working in Hillsborough right now, taking down the old Orange Industries building on Tryon Street one 2-by-6, and one piece of tongue-and-groove wallboard at a time. They are putting them in neat stacks for the county to pick up and deliver to another site across town, where the Public Works Department is using them to frame the interior walls of a new building.
The county had a $50,000 bid to demolish and remove the Orange Industries building--an abandoned wreck since a tree fell on it during Hurricane Fran. But the Hendricks are deconstructing it for just $25,000, and they estimate that the county will get about $12,000 of that back in the form of perfectly good, already milled wood.
"This was built in 1928," Pete says, "before you had composites and laminates. It's pure wood, which makes it easy to take apart and very profitable because, again, it's pure wood." The tongue-and-groove boards would cost up to $3 a foot if bought new. The Hendricks are recovering several thousand feet worth. What the county doesn't use, it plans to sell at auction, Pete says.
This is his 48th deconstruction, but for Orange County it's a first--and a model. The project was inspired by a C&D Recycling Task Force headed by Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Barry Jacobs. Jacobs' group found the Hendrickses, and it is paying to have the whole deconstruction and reuse process videotaped so the building industry can see for itself how it works.
"Deconstruction," Jacobs says, "is good common sense."
Maybe so, but it's not widely practiced. Hendricks says one reason is that builders and developers are making so much money so easily, they can't be bothered to save some by recycling. They just pay to have their wastes hauled to the nearest landfill--or dumped in the woods.
"We're a mobile, affluent, wasteful society," Hendricks says. "Go somewhere where the economy sucks." He cites Nova Scotia as an example. "They're not affluent, and they would never think of throwing valuable materials away like we do."
Affluence is one reason C&D wastes aren't recycled. The other? "It's dirty, nasty work," Hendricks says. A bit later, he says it again with evident pride. He is congenitally unable to be wasteful, it seems. He did his first deconstruction with his daddy when he was 13. The Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest was tearing down some old buildings on its campus, and the Hendricks took the wood and bricks and built a cabin behind their house.
It's more than economics, Robin Hendricks says. Recycling is "just an emotional, spiritual duty" they feel to do the right thing.
Demolition waste is just part of the C&D waste problem, of course. The other part: Wasteful construction.
According to Scott Moux, the state's recycling chief, the typical new house generates three to five tons of waste in the form of board cuttings, leftover sheetrock, extra roofing tiles, bricks, blocks and so on. Most of it could be recycled too. Most ends up in landfills.
What should government do? Pete Hendricks thinks the answer is the one he learned in the Marines: Leadership by example. Orange County's example is a good one, but it's also the exception to what he thinks is a pretty slack performance by the public sector.
In fact, the public sector in North Carolina has spent the last decade getting out of the solid waste business. That has left the field, so to speak, to private industry, which until recently did not have much interest in recycling for profit.
A decade ago, Scott Moux says, the state had 140 landfills, most of them run by local governments. Now, it has 40, and the bulk of our solid waste goes to a handful of the new ones that are run by for-profit companies like BFI and Waste Industries Inc.
Moreover, the old landfills were in town somewhere. The new ones are way out in the countryside. They're out of sight, Moux says, and out of mind--one reason why recycling efforts have fallen flat in recent years.
The difference? When we discovered, in the late '80s, that the old municipal landfills were leaching pollutants into the groundwater below them, the state responded with a burst of new laws to reduce our dependence on landfills, and the public showed great enthusiasm for recycling. Yard wastes were banned from landfills, cutting disposal by 600,000 tons a year. Tires and lead batteries were banned too, while local programs geared up everywhere to recycle bottles, cans and newspapers.
But the new landfills don't seem to be leaching. They have synthetic liners, and a layer of clay, and they also have elaborate piping to "suck the juice out" before it can leak through the clay and damage the liner, Moux notes.
As the new landfills have replaced the old, a lot of the recycling programs have grown stale, Moux says, cutting back on the money they spend to promote themselves and limiting what they take. Orange County is an exception, and Durham recently increased its "yield" by 15 percent when it required residents to separate what they put out for curbside pickup. Raleigh and Wake County "have room to grow," he adds.
Meanwhile, Durham got out of the landfill business. Now it trucks its refuse to the private Brunswick Landfill in southern Virginia. Raleigh's old landfill closed. Its wastes go to the North Wake landfill, which is itself fast running out of space. Wake County wants to build a new landfill in Holly Springs, but residents there are fighting furiously to stop it: They've charged the county with environmental racism, since when their town was tabbed in the early '90s, most of its then-tiny population was African-American.
While the state's urban counties either struggle to site "the last landfill they will ever have," as Moux puts it, or give up completely, economically distressed rural counties have stepped up to cut deals with the waste industry--enough rural land to put a big hole in the ground in exchange for tax revenues to help pay for schools and other needs. Once they're built, economies of scale make them cheap to run--and cheap to use. Thus, Durham can ship its garbage to Virginia for about the same cost as if it had its own, smaller landfill.
But if things look rosy now Moux says, we may be creating a future nightmare. The reason: While the new landfills don't leak now, most experts think they will start to leak eventually, because their liners will wear out. The computers, batteries, oils and other hazardous wastes that don't get captured and recycled before the garbage goes in today may be their undoing in the future, he says--but who knows?
"We can't really say what the threat is. We're building this plane as we're flying it," Moux says. "In 30 or 50 years, we might look back and ask: Why did we ever think this was going to work?"
With the 10-year goal so clearly a failure, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is asking the General Assembly to create a new legislative study commission to look at what should come next. Such things as a bottle bill (requiring consumers to pay a deposit, returnable with the bottle) are possible. So are such things as requiring municipalities to have waste-separation ordinances like Durham's and prohibiting landfills from taking computers, electronic gear or other hazardous materials.
Another idea: A state surcharge on landfill fees of, say, $10 a ton. That would increase the usual "tipping" fee by about 25 percent, discouraging wasteful dumping while also raising money the state could use for any number of things, including maybe cleaning up future landfill messes.
In the Triangle, one expert would like to see the county governments work together and think long-term. Judy Kincaid, the Triangle J Council of Governments' analyst on waste issues, notes that local governments update their so-called 10-year management plans regularly with the state, but none of them look much more than about two years ahead.
Her thought: Get together, buy a regional landfill site (maybe in southern Virginia) and work hard to make it last, not the usual 20 years, but 100 years. "The problem with private landfills is that, once the hole is in the ground, they want to fill it up as fast as they can. That's how they make money," Kincaid says. "But the public interest is in filling it up as slowly as possible by recycling as much as possible."
Organic wastes--foodstuffs and wood, mainly--can be composted at a profit, she says. A forthcoming report on "clean wood" (excluding the engineered kind and contaminated wood) will show that, in the 1999-2000 fiscal year, the Triangle J's six counties threw out more than 55,000 tons of it a year, she says, with almost 42,000 coming from Wake County alone.
Not surprisingly, however, the one for-profit bright spot in the C&D picture is also in Wake County.
Material Reclamation LLC, a C&D recycling facility, opened in December on Raleigh View Road, just south of the city line in Garner. It's one of four such facilities around the state, Moux says, and the only one in the Triangle.
Already, according to general manager Chris Roof, Material Reclamation is taking in 300 tons of C&D waste a day, a figure it hopes to double within the year. Once the dump trucks leave, a combination of heavy equipment and 20 laborers go to work separating the wood from the brick from the sheetrock from the metal; each gets its own pile, and each can be resold at a profit, Roof says. For example, the wood gets ground up and sold as boiler fuel. About 70 percent of what it takes in gets recycled; the other 30 percent is landfilled.
Will all the Triangle's C&D waste come here before long? Not necessarily, Roof says. Material Reclamation charges about $30 a ton to take it, and although the North Wake and other big landfills charge somewhat more, the difference isn't always enough for a construction company working in North Raleigh to make a special trip to Garner.
That could change soon, though. Wake County has announced that it wants to get out of the C&D business completely. Meanwhile, a state surcharge could put tipping fees at private landfills closer to the $80 a ton common in the Northeast--where recycling is also common, Roof says.
North Carolina, Moux says, is part of a new consortium of states that is working to get industry to change the way it builds and packages things so they can be disassembled and recycled or discarded more readily. Again, computers--and the molded plastic they come in--are a prime example, Moux says.
That recalls something Pete Hendricks worries about. It's one thing to take apart old buildings. It's painstaking labor, yes, but they do come apart and they do yield valuable products. But the new houses going up today are built with nail guns and glue, and they're full of composites and laminates that won't last like wood and will have little or no value when they're torn down in the not-so-distant future.
"You want the radical view?" he says. "We need a huge transformation in the construction industry. We need to go back to building houses that will last 300 years, not 30 years, and that can be taken apart when the time comes.
"The key is sustainability," Hendricks says. "Right now, whenever I go by a new subdivision and look at the houses, I say to myself, there's 80 cubic yards of waste."