Composting Program Ramping Up - TribPapers

Composting Program Ramping Up

Photo by Markus Spike.

Asheville – A waste characterization study conducted by the local company SCS Engineering last year determined that 35.2% of residential waste going to the Buncombe County landfill was compostable. This translated to 48,200 tons.

The Environmental Impact of Composting

It is claimed that composting can reduce carbon emissions by varying amounts. Some sources only claim that composting will divert sufficient waste to allow companies like WastePro to scale back on the number of miles driven by their trucks. This is hard to believe.

A guide to the materials Asheville and Buncombe County are accepting at their public composting sites.
A guide to the materials Asheville and Buncombe County are accepting at their public composting sites.

It is also not intuitively obvious that putting food scraps in a metal bin, while definitely not natural, is somehow better for the environment than letting them decay in a heap of trash. However, when food is buried in a landfill, it is digested by anaerobic bacteria, and one of the byproducts of this process is methane. When food is composted and routinely aerated, it is decomposed by aerobic bacteria, whose metabolism yields carbon dioxide instead.

The EPA says methane is “25 times more potent” when it comes to retaining heat in the atmosphere. This, apparently, is sufficient to counter the celebrated 130 oF temperatures generated by aerobic metabolism, which kill pathogens in compost piles.

Composting Practices and Community Initiatives

A lot of people compost at home. Reasons for not doing so include a revulsion to playing in stinky rot and a fear of attracting bears. In some parts of the county, neighbors will experience nightly garbage bin tippings until a round of rapid fire is heard. Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells used this as an opportunity to plug the county’s composting containers as well as the website

BearWise says human food should never be left outside. Instead, it should be stored indoors. Trash and recycling should be kept either in a bear-resistant container or a bear-resistant building and taken outside only for hauling. If trash pickup is available, it should go to the roadside no earlier than the day of delivery.

BearWise also says home composting should be conducted inside, in a bear-safe container, or in a patch surrounded by an electric fence. “Avoid adding meats, bones, dairy products, fats, unrinsed eggshells, garbage, and leftovers or large amounts of fruit,” warns the website. It can be discouraging to try to follow all these rules and still throw a bunch of food in the trash.

So, in October 2021, the county and the City of Asheville launched a partnership to open drop-off composting sites. The county accepted materials at the landfill, and the city opened a site at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center.

The facilities accepted all foods, provided any stickers, rubber bands, or other non-food accessories were removed. They also accepted all compostable paper and plastic products. A press release from the City of Asheville explained the county’s drop-off site was “part of a pilot program designed to assess interest and engagement for food waste diversion and composting in Buncombe County.”

Last month, the county announced it would be operating a total of eight sites. Five are at public libraries, namely, East Asheville, Oakley, Leicester, West Asheville, and Skyland. The other new one is at the Transfer Station. Due to congestion issues, composters are asked to use the latter station only when hauling other waste.

The new guidelines specify that these sites are open to registered residents of Asheville and Buncombe County. Registration is free, and it only requires that the composter tell program leadership their email address, their zip code, the number of adults and the number of children in their household, with the stipulation that these numbers be rounded to the nearest integer, their selection of a preferred drop-off site, how they heard about the program, and how they were composting before joining the program. Registration not only gives residents access; the city was also offering “free kitchen countertop food scrap collection bins (while supplies last).”

To date, the county has registered 2,300 households, serving 4,000 individuals. About 65% of registrants claimed they had not been composting at all prior to signing up. The county estimates that the bins have diverted 160 tons of waste from the landfill, which will add to its life. Extrapolating, the bins would divert 225 tons per year, which is equated to 756 tons of CO2 or the yearly emissions of 164 typical automobiles.

Perhaps ten-mile after-dinner walks to the library, or sending Junior there on his bike with a backpack full of slop, are unappealing. Good stewards who prefer to compost at home are referred by the county to Asheville GreenWorks’ website for composting information. After all, it doesn’t smell if done correctly, even if the preferred method involves keeping worms on the kitchen counter.