Trash talk, budget busters and poseur politics

The elephant in the room that nobody is talking about... factoring rising fuel costs into the equation.

It's mindnumbing that an area that prides itself on sustainability would even be considering a program to export it's own waste. The very definition of sustainability is something that can be maintained into the indefinite future. Is paying to haul waste out of county sustainable in any sense of the word? Is increasing transportation miles at the end of a product's long transportation chain to get to the consumer even sane?

What percentage of trash in the current landfill comes from UNC? What percentage comes from Chapel Hill and Carrboro? What percentage comes from elsewhere in the county? Maybe each district should be required to sustainably deal with it's own waste.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro have sustainable community as their vision. Carolina North has as it's stated vision: "This and other progressive measures will help make Carolina North a model of sustainability — a campus that is socially, environmentally, and economically sound."

Yet when it comes to the politics of NIMBYism, all those lofty sentiments are tossed out with the trash that the poseurs would like to ship out of the county. But, let's put aside politics for a moment and look merely at the costs of exporting waste, that by definition has little to no value.

Has anybody really done a detailed study of the economics of paying to haul waste elsewhere? As I understand it, with no site even selected, there's no real way to know even current costs, much less costs going forward. What is the unidentified area going to charge us to accept our refuse? How much will it cost to ship it there? How will these costs change over time?

What we do know is that gas prices have been going up roughly 20% per year over the past 5 years, for a doubling in just half a decade. Currently, diesel fuel is $4/g and so far, biodiesel has consistantly been priced a bit higher. There's every indication that both gas and diesel are going to continue to cost more in the future.

What would the local municipal and county budgets look like in 5 years with gas/diesel at $8/g or in 10 years with fuel at, say, $16/g? Think it can't happen? Why not? Think magical technology is going to arrive just in time? Folks, we don't even have a solution for our trash. Until we can solve for a sustainable, economically and environmentally sound method of dealing with our waste, dealing with the larger issue of appropriate technological transportation solutions seems a bit off.

This issue is so very much bigger than merely the cost of running garbage trucks. I use that because it's an extremely obvious example that's on the table right now. What do the city and county budgets look like in a few years when the costs of running everything such as school buses, police cars, fire trucks, garbage trucks, recycling trucks and public transportation have all doubled or tripled? What do the budgets look like when wages have had to be constantly adjusted upwards to compensate for increased fuel and food costs? Where's the money to pay for all this going to come from? ... Transfer taxes only work when houses sell. What's the upper ceiling for truly sustainable property taxes? Is short-sighted thinking now going to bankrupt us sooner, rather than later?

I hope somebody out there has some solutions. Because from this vantage point it seems that transfer stations and transfer taxes are merely transfering responsibility to later administrations. And there's going to come a time when decisions made today won't be able to be undone in the future.



Waste Generated by Origin 2005-2006
(includes all materials brought to Orange County Landfill

Orange County
Town of Carrboro
Town of Chapel Hill
Town of Hillsborough
UNC (by UNC trucks only)*
UNC Hospital (UNC Hosp trucks only)*
Privately hauled (includes UNC campus)

*Most waste on campus and from hospital hauled by private haulers.

As the notation indicates, the stats for UNC are actually quite deceptive.

Also of interest is this:

Construction and Demolition (C&D) debris, which is waste or excess material resulting from building new structures and from the remodeling, repair, demolition or deconstruction of existing buildings. C&D debris makes up about 1/3 of Orange County's total waste stream, or about 31,000 tons of waste per year.

Is Chapel Hill and Orange County as progressive as, say, Dupont or Athens, GA?

Looking into the various options that a community might choose to solve for it's waste problems, it is easy to be initially drawn to some high tech solutions like bioreactors and plasma gasification. But, looking into the matter further, it becomes very obvious that such techno fixes have their own associated costs and issues. And with one notable exception, less sophisticated solutions such as burying waste or exporting it seem to wind up never being real solutions, but rather just postponements of the inevitable.

Simply relying on the disparity between the haves and have-nots to assume that trucking one's waste to some other area where environmental justice issues aren't so readily visible seems so incredibly naïvely Bourgeoisie in the most prejorative unsustainable sense of the word that it beggars the imagination as to how such a crude idea would even be entertained by anyone of responsibility and merit.

What ultimately becomes so obvious is the need to return to something that would've been readily apparent to most 17th century farmers. "Waste not, want not," and, "Use everything but the squeal." are phrases that might have been understood by British subsistence farmers in 1620, (as evidenced by the BBC documentary Tales From the Green Valley). Turning liabilities into assets and zero waste management may have the ring of new age modernity, but really such concepts have their roots in the sensibilities learned of people who did not have the luxury of extravagant wasteful practices. It's really not until one gets to the age of modern consumptionism and entitlement that large problems with what to do with a communities trash become difficult and complex.

Is Orange up to the task of embracing zero waste as a goal seriously worth striving for? Admittedly, to the modern mind it's a difficult concept to wrap one's mind around. It goes far beyond the 3 R's of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle to embrace a holistic approach to the whole of the production cycle. It's a difficult enough path for a single company or a single city to employ. For a whole county to really practice it would require serious amounts of constant pro-active, progressive thinking. It would not be easy.  But, in the long run it might actually prove cheaper and more sustainable than any number of temporary bandaid fixes such as building more landfills or relying on paying others to haul our trash to other locales.

The concept of zero waste has begun to gain acceptance in a range of settings from Australia to Toyota. Why not try it here? It was proposed in Durham in 1996 and UNC gave lip service to it in 2005. Why not make it work to solve our problems?

Curbside recycling and trash separation are not enough. Could UNC, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Orange County team together to agree to radically reduce the amount of garbage sent to the landfill or transfer stations? Could we do it in time?  How about a goal of reducing waste by a percentage equal to the amount that fuel costs rise each year? Could we cut trash by 20% per year? If that's not appropriate, then what is?

If construction and demolition debris accounts for a third of OC's trash problem, what might be done to cut that? What role does reducing food packaging including eliminating non-biodegradable styrofoam play?

Austin, Tx has resolved to stop burying waste entirely by 2040. Could we achieve a point where we might stop burying or shipping trash to be buried elsewhere by 2020?

What can we do so that we're not dealing with this same issue in another 10 or 20 years?

Here are some sites that might get us thinking proactively, rather than reactively:

Athens, GA strives for zero waste

Zero waste leaders

Zero Waste Alliance


Zero Waste America

Eco Cycle - Zero Waste, A Systems Approach

Orange County Solid Waste Management

Transfer Station Siting Process

Zero Waste a goal for UNC back in 2005

Zero Waste suggested for Durham back in 1996

Plasma Arc Gasification


Also, if we deal with our own waste, we could be generating methane and using it for fuel.

Moses Carey has been a Commissioner for the two decades that waste has been a serious issue for Orange County. Whether or not he wins or loses his Senate bid, it may be a good thing that he vacates the Board - both for the Rogers Road community that he has ignored and for a sustainable resolution of the issue itself.

Without regard to any specific person or personality, I wonder if we need term limits on county commissioners. We have a law that keeps a president from ruining the country for more than 8 years. Why not a rule that keeps a commish from ruining the county for more than 8 years? It seems like ALL politicians get stale and stuck in their ways after awhile. Regularly replacing them all with new people with new ideas is probably a good idea in most cases. This idea of professional politicians who continually get re-elected on name recognition alone doesn't seem to be working on most levels.
The NC Supreme Court has ruled that term limits imposed by the General Assembly are unconstitutional, so the NC Constitution would have to be amended to create term limits on County Commissioners.  Not impossible, but difficult.

Looks like the commishes approved sale of landfill gas to Carolina North. Now if Carolina North would just keep it's own trash, it could have it's own methane production plant.

4 years. If you think they should go, urge others to run against them and help those others win.

You can't put democracy on "automatic pilot."  


The commissioner election should be non-partisan just like the towns & school board elections. This would be a big step toward democracy.
I've said it a million times.
ALL politics should be non-partisan. Partisan politics is one of the great evils the world faces. Partisanship and reducing every discussion to "are you for us or against us" hampers adequate problem solving and just ensures a continuation of the status quo.

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