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The heat builds: 100 degrees

if composting projects keep Fahrenheit; 110 °F; 120 °F.

expanding at current rates. Oxygen molecules begin to break Backyard composting piles have down, water molecules gather, and always been a boon to home bacteria begin to multiply.

gardeners. The rich humus Millions of

generated from the piles of grass, microorganisms—mostly bacteria carrot shavings, egg shells, and and fungi-metabolize grass

leaves helped many a garden grow. clippings, dead leaves, and orange Composting has other benefits, too. peels. More heat is released. The Individual and community temperature climbs above 130 °F.

composting provides an alternative Matter changes form. What was to leaf burning, a practice many once tossed out as trash is turned areas have banned in the past into a rich, nutrient-laden mix decade due to air pollution, health, called humus or compost.

and fire safety concerns. Recent This is not a description of a studies have shown that leaf and new technology developed to brush burning releases toxic, combat the United States' growing irritant, and carcinogenic municipal solid waste problems. It compounds including carbon is instead the eons-old process of monoxide, hydrocarbons, and composting: returning nutrients particulate matter--the "smoke" from yard waste and food scraps to that's visible when leaves burn. the environment.

These airborne particles are small According to EPA data, nearly 18 enough to be breathed deep into percent (by weight) of the

the lungs and can remain there for municipal solid waste stream is months or even years, causing yard waste-grass clippings,

chronic irritation and other effects. leaves, tree trimmings, etc. During Composting also offers a partial peak summer and fall months, solution to the problems of landfill yard waste can amount to between closings and increased dumping 25 and 50 percent of the solid fees, and the banning of yard waste stream. Collected and

wastes from many landfills dumped into landfills, it adds up beginning in the 1980s. Many local to some 35 million tons of

decision makers have opted for material. That's second only to community composting programs. paper in landfill tonnage.

According to Resource Recycling The composting process can

magazine, at least 2,000 new include food scraps (nearly 7 yard-waste composting facilities percent of the solid waste stream will have begun operating between by weight) and even waste paper

1990 and 1995. (weighing in at a whopping 38

There are hurdles, though. Siting percent); however, most municipal composting projects can be a composting projects treat only yard problem due to the smell-which waste. (One reason for this: Health can range from disagreeable to laws governing food scraps and downright intolerable-generated concerns about hazardous inks and by some of the composting other materials in paper

methods. Money is a problem as complicate the process for

counties, cities, and towns cut municipalities.) EPA estimates that back on services as budgets about one-third of yard waste can tighten. Many composting methods be diverted from landfills by 1995 require investments for machinery

and land and, at the very least, for
a collection program. Finally,
composting creates a product that
needs to be used or sold. Many
communities use the compost
themselves for local
groundskeeping or offer it free to
residents. Savvy local officials
have been able to sell the compost
to nurseries or others. But that
requires market knowledge and
quality control-which can be
difficult. (Bits of plastic from
collection bags or bits of wood can
result in unusable or unsaleable

Local planners can choose
among many options for
composting. For most methods, the
material to be composted is formed
into windrows-elongated piles or
rows-up to 12 feet high and 24
feet wide. The piles are then left to
decompose. The time required to
effectively compost the material is
anywhere from 4 to 18 months,
depending upon the frequency of
turning the material. Turning
aerates the pile—a crucial element
in composting. Forcing air through
the piles using a blower and a
network of pipes underneath the
piles hastens the composting
process: The compost is ready after
only 2 to 10 weeks. Forced
aeration methods require more
energy, but also create less odor
and can be done on a smaller scale
than less-intensive windrow

Composting can also be done
“in-vessel.” The material is
composted within a chamber or
vessel in which temperature,
moisture, etc., can be carefully
controlled. In-vessel composting
requires little space, but is quite
expensive to start-up and power.
The compost, though, is ready in
one to two weeks.
-Gregg Sekscienski,
Assistant Editor

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1989's Hurricane Hugo created
more waste in a night than
Mecklenburg County, North
Carolina, normally generates in a
year. As part of the clean-up
effort, the county ground
300,000 tons of trees into mulch.

n a fall night in 1989, Hurricane "We couldn't bury it. We didn't have a

Hugo roared into Charlotte, North place for it all. And we thought it Carolina, turning this so-called "City of would be a step backward from our Trees" into a city of trash. The 90 mile commitment to recycling. So we had to per hour winds snapped trees and go out and find places to stack downed power lines to create more thousands of tons of trees until we waste overnight than all of

converted them to mulch.” Mecklenburg County's 511,000 people The nation's 35th most populous generate in a year. By dawn, the city city, Charlotte has become accustomed and county had launched a cleanup to adversity in waste disposal. The that would last 18 months, cost more city, which spreads over 80 percent of than $27 million, and become the

Mecklenburg County, boomed during biggest test ever for the community's the 1980s, growing to the nation's commitment to recycling.

third largest banking center, reaching To preserve landfill space,

the final cut for a new National government officials decided to collect Football League team, and landing on and grind 300,000 tons of trees into Newsweek's Top 10 “hottest" cities mulch. "The hurricane inundated us list. And along with a 10-year growth with waste particularly yard waste," spurt that added 25 percent more says Charlie Willis, chairman of the people, came tons more trash. Today, county's solid waste advisory board. residents and businesses generate

(Chandler is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer.)

The Situation Today


They also plan a $10 million recycling center for business waste. In January, curbside collection will be extended to 84,000 apartments and condominiums. And a new law requires all private haulers who serve businesses and citizens outside Charlotte to provide recycling to residential customers.

There's already an array of recycling programs in Charlotte: residential curbside pickup, yard waste pickup, dropoff centers, and a remove-and-resell operation for bulky appliances left at the landfill. The county mines and sells metals from ash at its incinerator. It also runs small recycling programs for cardboard, car batteries, and motor oil.

Curbside collection in Charlotte reaches 110,000 single family homes

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about 600,000 tons of garbage a year, and now the community is without a public landfill.

The 300-acre dump that served for 20 years hit capacity in April. Citizen lawsuits have blocked attempts to open a new one. Neighboring South Carolina, which borders Mecklenburg County, recently joined the fight to stop a planned 574-acre landfill on the South Carolina state line. The South Carolina legislature passed a law in June that would make that state's low-level radioactive waste dump off-limits to North Carolina if any North Carolina county builds a landfill within a mile of the South Carolina border. Lacking its own landfill, Mecklenburg County has contracted for space in a private dumpa move that has pushed up dump fees and sparked a new round of legal battles.

It is the constant struggle of siting new landfills that has propelled recycling from a modest experiment to a top priority in this community. Citizens have embraced recycling with 75 percent of eligible households participating at least once a month in Charlotte's voluntary curbside program. Seven local governments in Mecklenburg County, including Charlotte, have joined in a waste management plan that makes recycling the most favored disposal method.

The plan calls for reducing the amount of trash buried or burned by 25 percent per capita by next July. The goal jumps to 40 percent reduction by 2001. So far, the community has reduced disposal by 13 percent since 1990—a long way from next year's target.

To meet the goals, the city and county have set up aggressive recycling programs. This year, the two governments will spend $6.2 million on recycling collection and processing, up from $1.8 million three years ago.

Recycling coordinators won't accept new materials until they are certain they have buyers.

profits it makes.

Charlotte took a big step in recycling in 1991 when it cranked up yard waste collection. Residents place tree limbs and brush at the curb. Grass clippings and leaves must go in clear plastic bags, so workers can see what's inside. City haulers drop the materials at two sites, where county workers take over.

With a shredder and three giant machines called tub grinders, county workers grind scrap wood and limbs into mulch. Other yard waste is composted: It's laid out in long rows, watered, turned frequently to aerate, and sometimes has nitrogen added to it. Within six months, the waste becomes a black humus, which is used to enhance soil.

Both products are sold to residents and landscapers. The county last year made $100,000, an amount expected to jump this year because of a new state law that prohibits putting yard waste in landfills. Mulch goes for about $1 for a 20-pound bag; compost sells for $3.50 for a 40-pound bag. The county has a revenue sharing deal with a private company to sell compost at local retail stores.

Recycling coordinators won't accept new materials until they are certain they have buyers. Charlotte, for example, claims to be the first city to accept spiral paper cans-from products like frozen juice-for recycling. Officials added the cylindrical cardboard cans only because they struck a deal with a nearby company that converts the cans into low-grade paper for cones that are used for textile yarn, carpet, and tape. "We would never have picked up spiral cans unless the market had approached us," says Cary Saul, the county's deputy engineering director. "We know markets have been a problem. We're cautious. You have to know your market before you get into

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and is nationally recognized for its high participation. Residents toss glass bottles, aluminum and steel cans, newspapers, and milk containers and other plastics into bright red "Curb it" bins and place the bins at the curb. City collectors carry the material to recycling headquarters, where glass is smashed, cans are crushed, and plastic and newspaper are baled for sale.

Recycling headquarters is a converted warehouse about twice the size of a high school gym. Recyclables are dumped on the floor, pushed by tractors onto conveyor belts, and separated by workers into bins. Loads are then baled for sale to buyers. A private company runs the processing center at no cost to the county. In return, the company keeps whatever

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Charlotte recycling organizers say they have strong markets for their recyclables because their supply is clean and thoroughly sorted.

Mecklenburg County photo,


As competition for buyers heats up across the country, Charlotte recycling organizers say they've maintained strong markets because they supply a clean, thoroughly sorted product. “We're going after the best quality paper we can get to supply our plants," says Kenny King, a buyer who has a contract for Charlotte's newspaper. "We've got to have a large quantity. We want it source-separated .... They do an excellent job at it."

Says the county's Saul: "When things get tight, buyers are going to want the best material. They don't want a bunch of newspaper with broken glass mixed in."

Despite everything that Charlotte is doing, city and county leaders admit they probably won't make the 25-percent reduction goal next July. More likely, it will be 1994, after a new commercial recycling center opens. The center is the city's first significant venture into attacking the business waste stream, which accounts for 55 percent of all trash.

The success of the center is not guaranteed. County leaders last year took steps to ensure a steady supply of recyclables with a "flow control" ordinance. It required that all waste generated in Mecklenburg County be dumped at a county disposal facility, and it gave county officials power to

dictate which facility haulers used. The plan was to direct commercial waste rich with paper, cardboard, and other recyclables to the new recycling center. But one Mecklenburg County company, wanting to use its own landfill outside the county, sued and blocked the new law.

Now the county has turned to old-fashioned competition to lure haulers. Officials are devising strategies, such as cut-rate dump fees and tax incentives, to lure haulers to use county facilities. "We can't go too far, because it could backfire," says Saul. "If we make disposal too cheap, there's no incentive for companies to cut the amount they produce.”

Despite recycling's popularity, nobody believes it's a cure-all. The county's waste management strategy also relies heavily on incineration. Landfilling is the least-favored option.

"Recycling is one of the options we've chosen to manage a portion of our waste," says Saul. “It's part of the

We want to recycle everything we can, then incinerate the rest. We only want to put things that won't burn in the landfill."

Mecklenburg County's incinerator opened in 1989; it burns 200 tons of refuse daily. Steam generated from incineration heats buildings at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the winter. And the electricity produced is sold to the Duke Power

Company. The plant burns about 11 percent of the county's waste; energy sales help defray about half the $2 million annual operating costs. The rest of the money comes from dump fees charged at county disposal sites.

The county plans a second incinerator that will burn 600 tons daily. Set to open in 1996, the $90 million burner is to be paid for through revenue bonds and energy sales. All told, the two incinerators are projected to burn 26 percent of the county's waste in 1996.

So far, the incinerators have dodged the kind of citizen's legal challenges that stalled a new landfill. Officials have calmed neighbors' fears by monitoring air quality around its current burner and publicizing the results. The county pledges similar tests around the new incinerator and will build in anti-pollution devices, such as stack scrubbers and a bag house.

Mecklenburg County has spent more than $100,000 to study a myriad of waste disposal options, including such obscure methods as refuse-derived fuel and bioconversion. Officials say they're confident the recycle-burn-bury combination is best. Still, it's going to take more than a disposal plan to reach the 40-percent reduction goal by 2001. "The real key is reducing waste at the source,” says Saul. “That takes time. That means plants have to change processes, and people have to change habits."

Board chairman Willis says people are beginning to do that. "There's a tremendous intangible benefit derived from curbside recycling. Those red boxes are like advertisements. Public awareness is so great that it filters into everything people do. They buy smarter. They think greener. They are more aware of their impact on the environment." O


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