Guys, I’ve been gone a while. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been reeeeeeally busy napping on the couch, snoozing on the porch, sleeping in the sunny corner of the yard… And my person has been really busy researching rotting food and stuff. She had a lot to say about it, but honestly I just pretended to listen so she would keep petting me.
What’s that? You’d really like to know what she was working on? Alright, if you’re sure…but it’s really long and there aren’t even any pictures! Maybe I’ll convince her to add a couple pictures of this really cute dog she knows to make it interesting. (Hint: the dog is me!)
Organic Waste Processing for the City of Asheville
The City of Asheville must slow the filling of the city/county landfill and responsibly decompose organic waste in a way that reduces the emission of methane and produces compost that can be used as organic fertilizer. The landfill Asheville currently uses is projected to be full by the year 2035, at which point the City will be forced to build a new landfill or outsource waste to other counties. Both options are neither financially or environmentally sustainable for Asheville. As such, in 2014, the City of Asheville adopted a long-term waste reduction goal of 50% waste reduction by ton by the year 2035, known as “Zero Waste AVL”. A recent study by the City showed that about 25% of our residential
waste is organic matter. In addition to the City’s “Big Blue” recycling bin pick-up system, which was implemented in 2012, and the upcoming “Pay As You Throw” system, which is slated to begin next year, a curbside composting service will be necessary to meet the goal of reducing our waste by 50% by 2035.
In its Sustainability Plan, written in 2009, the City of Asheville declared one of its guiding principles to be “addressing climate change through strategic management of our City facilities, transportation resources, water supply, infrastructure, land use planning, and solid waste” (CDM, 2009). Strategic management of the City’s solid waste calls for a close look at how it manages the waste stream currently feeding into the city/county landfill. All landfills take up a considerable amount
of space, create potential groundwater pollutants and release methane, a greenhouse gas. From July 2014-June 2015 the City of Asheville produced over 20,000 tons of solid waste that went into the Buncombe County landfill. That landfill is projected to reach capacity by 2035. The City will then either have to build a new landfill, or pay to outsource waste to other counties (“Zero Waste AVL Pay As You Throw,” 2015). Both options are expensive, and neither are a long-term, environmentally friendly solution. Nor do they comply with the City’s guiding principles for sustainability.
The City of Asheville has already implemented a robust recycling service, which provides citizens with 96-gallon “Big Blue” recycling bins that do not require sorting and are picked up by the City for free. This program increased recycling by volume by 25% citywide, and 80% of Asheville residents now recycle (Boyle, 2014). The City is now considering a “Pay As You Throw” (PAYT) system, in which citizens pay for garbage pick-up in accordance with the amount of garbage they produce. PAYT creates an economic incentive for citizens to recycle and/or produce less waste, and is set to be implemented in the fiscal year 2017-2018 (Whitehorn, 2016). One consideration of the PAYT program and the city’s “Zero Waste” goal is the creation of a viable residential composting program. A 2013 city waste audit found that 26 percent of waste going to the landfill is organic waste, which could be composted (CDM Smith, 2015). The PAYT system and a residential composting program would work hand-in-hand, along with the current recycling program, to vastly reduce the amount of waste going to Buncombe County’s landfill.
While organic waste processing systems have yet to become commonplace, several cities have implemented such programs and seen measurable benefits. In 2011 Portland, Oregon implemented a food scrap collection pilot among 2,000 households in four different areas of the city. The city issued composting roll carts and indoor collection buckets to the households, which would be collected once a week. The city also gave residents in the pilot program options regarding how often their recycling and garbage was picked up, with a significant rate increase for those who chose to have their garbage picked up once a week (double the regular monthly rate). Participants who had their recycling picked up every other week saw about a $2 decrease in their monthly rate. Portland found that Compostable food and food-soiled paper account for almost 30 percent of Portland residents’ garbage by weight—approximately 30,000 tons of unnecessary garbage every year or over 30 lbs. per household per month. In evaluating the pilot program, they found that almost half of the food scraps generated in the pilot area were being diverted into the green roll cart for composting, and garbage collected in the pilot areas dropped by 30%. Community buy-in was a success, as well: over 75% of pilot survey respondents indicated they were participating regularly, and 87% of pilot survey respondents said they were satisfied with their curbside collection service.
One year after the City of Portland implemented its curbside composting program, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) conducted a survey for a report on the successes and struggles of the program. Though not a comprehensive survey—there were 42 respondents—the story did give some insight into the challenges presented by curbside composting. Among the complaints Portland residents voiced in the survey was the odor—which resulted in rats and flies—the size and difficulty of cleaning the bins, and lack of credit for home composters, who didn’t use the city’s program but still had to pay for it (Profita, 2012). There were also issues with odors at the location of the compost processing facility in North Plains, Oregon, where the residents “don’t like being Portland’s compost bucket,” and where seagulls quickly took up residence (Jaquiss, 2012). For the seagulls, the composting facility team hired Airstrike Bird Control LLC, which now patrols the area with three falcons. While the falcons rarely kill seagulls, they do scare them away. And while the odor cannot be totally eliminated, the facility did make upgrades and adjust the compost “recipe” of porosity, moisture content, temperature, oxygen and pH balance (Jaquiss, 2012).
Even with setbacks and challenges, three years after implementing curbside composting city-wide, Portland reported that its residents had composted 200,000 tons of yard debris and food scraps, and nearly 80% of residents regularly participated in the program. And Portland has reduced garbage going to landfill by 36% (“Food Scrap Curbside Collection Pilot Summary Report,” 2011).
If the City of Asheville truly intends to reduce its waste by 50% by 2035, an organic waste processing system—perhaps similar to the one implemented in Portland—will be vital to that effort.
The City of Asheville’s goal of reducing waste will require organic waste processing. While waste from both City of Asheville residents and Buncombe County residents goes to the Buncombe County Landfill, this project will focus solely on residents of the City of Asheville. This does not include commercial waste.
Before moving forward with creating an organic waste processing system, the City must determine, as accurately as possible, the level of community buy-in for such a program, as well as work to generate community buy-in. The City has already conducted a survey to gauge interest in the Pay As You Throw system, some of which measured responses to a possible curbside composting program. 41% of respondents said they strongly agreed with the statement, “I would like to see curbside organics (yard or food waste),” and 23% somewhat agreed. Only 10% said they somewhat opposed or strongly opposed, suggesting strong community support. However, only 17% strongly agreed that they would be willing to pay more for organics service, and 20% somewhat agreed. Nearly a quarter of respondents strongly opposed (Skumatz, 2015). These responses measure interest before the implementation of Pay As You Throw, which will provide a financial incentive to produce less waste, and, therefore, remove organic waste from the waste stream. Once Pay As You Throw has been implemented, the City of Asheville could follow Portland’s model and use garbage pick-up to subsidize the composting program. In Portland, “residents who have 60-gallon carts will pay $3.50 more a month, raising their rates 10 percent to $37.45 per month. Those with 90-gallon carts will also pay about 10 percent more, bringing their rates to $43.40. But residents with 20- and 32-gallon cans will see rates stay at $23.70 and $27, or $28.50 for a 32-gallon cart” (Slovic, 2011). This places the greatest burden on those who throw away the most trash, and allows the composting program to remain free. Another survey should be implemented after Pay As You Throw is implemented, as more residents may support an organics waste processing system when a higher financial incentive is apparent.
With community buy-in assured, the first step in creating an organic waste processing system is selecting a location within the Buncombe County Solid Waste Management Facility for an organics processing facility. Other cities with curbside composting, such as Portland, have contracted the job out to private companies (Jaquiss, 2012). The private composting company in Asheville, Danny’s Dumpsters, collects around 40 tons of commercial food waste each week (Lunsford, 2014). Residents in the City of Asheville produce an estimated 113 tons of food waste each week—far exceeding Danny’s Dumpster’s capacity (CDM Smith, 2015). Therefore, the task of processing the city’s
organic waste falls to the Buncombe County Solid Waste Management Facility. The area within the facility must not be identified for future use in the Facility Plan, must be a minimum of four acres and reasonably level, and must have suitable access for waste hauling trucks. Two sites were identified in the feasibility study that meet this criteria; Site 1 was determined as the preferred site, due to its ease of access, existing infrastructure for stormwater management, proximity to power and the mulching area (CDM Smith, 2015).
After the selection of a site, the organic waste processing technology must be assessed and chosen. Organic waste is processed either aerobically or anaerobically—aerobically, or in open-air, being the more traditional “composting” system, which boasts the benefit of being suitable for both food and yard waste, and has lower operational complexity. Some types of anaerobic digesting of organic waste is only suitable for food waste; however, it produces biogas instead of just carbon dioxide. The biogas, which is 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide, may be collected and refined to be fed into the grid or compressed for use as vehicle fuel. The sale of energy or gas constitutes and significant portion of an anaerobic system’s revenue stream (CDM Smith, 2015). Dry anaerobic digestion (as opposed to wet anaerobic digestion) has the benefit of being suitable for both food and yard waste, and still produces biogas for collection and sale. The post-digestion, end product is then composted using an aerobic composting process. However, dry anaerobic digestion does come with some safety concerns, and is less efficient in collecting biogas and and processing liquid organic waste than wet anaerobic digestion. Benefits and drawbacks to each system must be considered—the feasibility study includes the following table comparing different aspects of multiple digestion systems, ranking them “low” to “high” (CDM Smith, 2015).
While the study makes no official recommendation, anaerobic digestion stands as the best system for the City of Asheville. Although it has a high operational complexity rating, it has the benefits of high odor control, low liquid management requirement, and high energy recovery, process control and process rate. According to the study, anaerobic facilities are typically owned and operated by private sector companies.
To ensure an effective launch of the organic waste processing system, a pilot program should be used. This program can be modeled after the pilot program the City of Asheville used to launch single-stream recycling. In that program, 770 households from the Park Avenue/The Views, Burton Street, Northwood Park and Parkway Forest neighborhoods participated in the program for three months. Portland’s pilot program included official letters sent to residents participating in the program, with colorful inserts and FAQs explaining the program. Cart tags were then placed on bins to alert residents that their service would be changing. The week before the rollout, participating residents received a tool kit that included a guide to their new recycling and garbage system, a collection schedule, and a magnet, delivered in a 2-gallon kitchen pail for collecting food scraps. The pilot program also included online outreach and newsletters. The program was very successful, with over 75 percent of pilot survey respondents participating regularly, and 87 percent of respondents saying they were satisfied with the service (“Food Scrap Curbside Collection Pilot Summary Report,” 2011). A similar pilot program in Asheville would help the city identify the best methods for educating residents and ensuring their participation. Portland, however, allows residents to decide how often to have their garbage, recycling and compost picked up—a somewhat complicated system that caused some issues during the pilot program. With the Pay As You Throw system already in place, it will be unnecessary for Asheville. However, Asheville should move towards the goal of only picking up garbage once every two weeks, on the same schedule as recycling. This system will help mitigate the increase in fuel consumption resulting from the extra truck routes, reducing the City’s carbon footprint and fuel expense. Because the planned shift to the Pay As You Throw System is scheduled for implementation in fiscal year 2017-18, the City should wait at least a year to allow residents to adjust to the new system before implementing organic waste processing. Effectiveness of the program will be measured through surveys, similar to the survey given for the Pay as You Throw system, and a waste audit. Because 18% of the City’s waste is still recyclable material, it is unlikely that 100% of organic waste will be successfully diverted. Although 100% is the ultimate goal, matching the 82% effectiveness of the recycling program is a reasonable short-term goal.
The cost of implementing this program will be significant. Capital expenses would include the purchase of seven new trucks (assuming 100% participation by residents), and 30,000 collections bins and kitchen bins to supply each residence. The total capital cost comes to $4,165,000, assuming direct haul to the landfill, instead of hauling to the Buncombe County Transfer Station (though hauling to the transfer station would reduce the distance traveled by city trucks, provide more time for collection and reduce the number of trucks, it would ultimately be more expensive. The city must purchase two transfer trucks, the residential recycling dropoff area at the transfer station would need to be relocated, and a backhoe and rolloff truck would need to be purchased, as well). Operating expenses would include salary and benefits for six collection truck drivers and fuel and maintenance for the trucks, totaling $476,000 annually. Finally, the city must consider the cost of the organic waste digesters. Two dry anaerobic digesters were considered in the study: a Zero
Waste Energy system and an Eisenmann system. The Zero Waste Energy facility requires using wood mulch for mixing the organic waste, and collects less biogas than the Eisenmann system, which means the revenue from power sales is less with the Zero Waste Energy system. The Eisenmann system still has higher operating and management cost. In the end, the net annual cost of the Zero Waste Energy system is $1,046,000, and the net annual cost of the Eisenmann system is $1,070,000—these totals include collection and hauling and processing costs. Though it is a little more expensive, the Eisenmann system is preferable because of its increased capacity for capturing biogas.
In the implementation of the Pay As You Throw system, the City of Asheville increased the sanitation services fee—which was below average compared to other municipalities in North Carolina—from $10.50 per month to $14 per month (Whitehorn, 2016). The city could use a similar increase to fund the organic waste processing system. As mentioned earlier, the city could also follow Portland’s model and use the Pay As You Throw system to shift the financial burden to those who generate the most garbage, and use the garbage fees incurred to subsidize the composting program. This would serve the dual purpose of funding the organic waste processing system and encouraging residents to compost more and produce less garbage in order to save money.
These numbers assume that the solid and liquid digestates from the organic waste process will be landfilled. Other cities with organic waste processing systems do not landfill the digestates. In Portland, for example, compost is sold to landscapers and agricultural users, and is available for residents to purchase, as well (“Portland Composts!,” n.d.). San Francisco, which was composting 600 tons of organic matter a day in 2011, also sells its compost to Napa Valley wineries (Mercado, 2015). According to the Western North Carolina Vitality Index, “the Western North Carolina region is recognized nationally as a leader in agriculture, with a diverse product line that ranges from Christmas trees, turf farms, and greenhouse and nursery crops to poultry, livestock, trout, and dairy to fresh vegetables and fruits of all kinds” (UNC Asheville’s NEMAC, 2016). Though many of these farms are small, actually thousands of farms operate in Western North Carolina—however, their numbers are declining. Instead of landfilling the compost resulting from the City’s organic waste processing system, selling the compost to our regional farms at a cost-effective price would benefit both the city and the regional agriculture industry, which in turn increases our area’s food security. Small amounts of compost could be used for the City’s various community garden projects, such as the George Washington Carver Edible Park.
Even if both the curbside composting program and recycling program achieved 100% participation, “other waste,” which is neither recyclable nor organic, measures more than half of the annual waste quantities produced by residents in the City of Asheville. Even if every recyclable and compostable item was processed correctly, we still wouldn’t meet our target of 50% waste reduction by 2035. Other measures will be necessary. On a global and national scale, plastic bags and Styrofoam present significant problems in waste management. According to the National Resource Defense Council, the average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags each year, adding up to around 100 billion plastic bags nationwide each year—and no more than 5 percent of those bags get recycled (Powers, 2008). The largest threat presented by single-use plastic bags is not to landfills, but rather the oceans, where trash, packaging, and improperly disposed waste from sources on land accounts for 80% of the marine debris found on beaches during cleanups and surveys. Plastic bags and other single-use plastic food containers make up one-third to two-thirds of garbage collected and catalogued on beaches by the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA, 2009). Polystyrene, a non-biodegradable product made from petroleum, presents another issue, as Americans throw away an estimated 2.3 million tons of it every year (Jannot, 2006). Asheville would greatly benefit from following San Francisco’s lead on reducing this kind of waste. In 2007 the City of San Francisco passed the Food Service Waste Reduction Ordinance, requiring food vendors and restaurants in San Francisco to use compostable or recyclable to-go containers, and prohibiting the use of polystyrene foam (Styrofoam). Polystyrene foam is non-renewable, non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, is made from oil, and is often ingested by wildlife (San Francisco Department of the Environment, 2013). And in 2012 the City of San Francisco passed the Extended Bag Reduction ordinance, requiring all retailers in San Francisco to charge a minimum of 10 cents for each bag provided at checkout, and requiring retailers to provide certified compostable, post-consumer recycled, or reusable
bags at a charge—the law prohibits all single-use checkout plastic bags. These measures encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags, and cuts down on waste and litter (San Francisco Department of the Environment, 2012). San Francisco also requires businesses—including restaurants—to comply with recycling and composting requirements, not just residents. Enacting these same measures in Asheville would significantly reduce the amount of waste going in to the landfill. In fact, as of 2013 San Francisco was recycling or composting 80% of its waste (Mercado, 2015). Other considerations for improving and expanding upon the organic waste processing system include incentivizing backyard composting—as backyard composters will still be charged for organic waste processing service, despite the fact that they would be processing the majority of their organic waste themselves. The City can incentivize backyard composting by allowing tax deductions on state income tax for backyard bin purchases (Platt & Coker, 2009). However, backyard composting should be considered only as a complimentary system to municipal organic waste processing, not as a replacement. Backyard composting is only available to those who have space and way to use compost once it has decomposed, which excludes most residents living in apartments and those in homes without yards or garden space. Backyard composting also does not allow for the processing of all organic waste materials, such as meat, bones, dairy, and pizza boxes—all of which can be processed in a facility. Additionally, composting at home requires more effort and education for individual residents, as a compost pile must have the proper balance of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials to properly decompose (US EPA, n.d.).
Asheville is well-positioned to become a leader in waste reduction in this country. Through combined strategies and programs, including an organic waste processing system, the City of Asheville can not only meet its goal of reducing waste by 50% by 2035, but can even exceed it.
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Skumatz, L. (2015, November). Asheville – Pay As You Throw Option Analysis Apendix E: Detailed Household Survey Results. Skumatz Economic Research Associates.
Slovic, B. (2011, September 13). More answers to questions about Portland’s new curbside composting plan, including cost. Retrieved November 19, 2016, from http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2011/09/answers_to_questions_about_por.html
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Whitehorn, B. (2016). Memorandum: Solid Waste Fee Increase–Additional background and information. City of Asheville. Retrieved from http://www.ashevillenc.gov/Portals/0/city-documents/sustainability/PAYT_Memo_UpdateCouncil_06_14_2016.pdf
Zero Waste AVL Pay As You Throw. (2015). City of Asheville. Retrieved from http://www.ashevillenc.gov/Portals/0/city-documents/communityrelations/progress/zerowaste/2015_08_10_ZeroWasteAVL_PAYT.pdf