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Trash a messy problem for Orange County

A trash compactor sits idle at the Orange County Landfill in February on Eubanks Road. DTH/Ben Pierce
A trash compactor sits idle at the Orange County Landfill in February on Eubanks Road. DTH/Ben Pierce

More than two years and $490,000 later, no one is quite sure how Orange County should take out the trash.

Local governments are currently trying to sort out the ramifications of the county’s latest decision: come 2012, when the local landfill reaches capacity, county trash will be trucked directly to a transfer station in Durham.

Members of the county Board of Commissioners say the December decision, which brought an end to a contentious search process, is a temporary fix.

But it also has its consequences, from higher greenhouse gas emissions to the potential of millions of dollars in higher costs.

And the longer the county spends deciding what to do with its garbage, the longer it will have to absorb the costs of its choice. In the end, it might have to restart the search for a transfer station site.

“It’s like punting,” said Commissioner Barry Jacobs, who is also an ACC sports writer. “Sometimes you can get better field position.”

All that gas

One impact of the latest decision is clear: the move will mean more pollution.

Shipping the trash to Durham means garbage trucks will spend more time on the road, often on highways, increasing the county’s carbon footprint.

That jump in emissions could make it hard for towns to meet long-term sustainability goals. Towns and institutions are analyzing the Durham decision and other options’ potential effect on these goals.

Chapel Hill, for example, has made plans to reduce its emissions 60 percent by 2050.

“If we’re adding miles, then naturally we add more CO2,” said John Richardson, Chapel Hill’s sustainability officer. “From that perspective, we would need to figure out ways to try and counter balance that.”

The latest estimate by Olver Inc., a solid waste management consultant on retainer with the county, stands at more than 46 million additional pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

The estimate, which was approved by towns and county government, is about 1 percent of the 5.6 billion pounds of CO2 the county produced in 2005, the last time emissions were comprehensively measured.

Chapel Hill, along with Carborro, will shoulder the lion’s share of the increase, since the towns are farther from the Durham transfer station.

By shipping trash to Durham, the county also loses some control over what will get landfilled, said Gayle Wilson, Orange County’s solid waste manager.

Orange County has posted the third-best waste reduction numbers in the state, decreasing its trash output by 54 percent since 1991. Durham, however, has gone backwards, producing 1 percent more.

That could mean more greenhouse gas producing materials, like most organic waste, will not be properly disposed.

“There’s the as yet unknown impact of not being able to apply our regulations,” he said. “We’re worried about a little waste reduction slippage.”

The county’s decision could also affect UNC, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2050.

The University wants to find a place in-county to send its trash. But in an effort to free up space in the county landfill, the University has been shipping its waste to a private transfer station also in Durham for about a year.

That means an increase in hauling distance and a spike in emissions that could complicate sustainability goals, said BJ Tipton, UNC’s solid waste program manager.

“It’s one that we haven’t analyzed directly, but it’s a possibility,” she said. “The change has added some hauls.”

Money crunch

The exact financial costs of the decision have yet to be worked out.

Officials and consultants in waste management say trucking trash to Durham will cost the county more than building a local transfer station would have, especially in the long-run.

Olver estimates that a local transfer station would have saved the county up to $15 million.

 The decision will also expose the county to more risk as variables like gas prices fluctuate, Jan Sassaman, chairman of the solid waste advisory board, and Wilson agreed.

“Logic tells me that there are other ways of doing things that are cheaper,” Sassaman said.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro, which have a longer trip to the Durham transfer station, face an annual increase of about $223,000 and $109,000, respectively, in hauling costs over shipping to an in-county transfer station, according to Olver.

Hillsborough, which is closer to the Durham station, will actually save about $3,000 annually by shipping to Durham.

But commissioners seem reluctant to rely on that data.

“There are fiscal and environmental costs no matter where we go,” Jacobs said.

“We need to decide what the actual costs are in a process that is not consultant-driven.”

Some activists agree.

Orange County Voice, which played a prominent role in defeating attempts to site a transfer station in the county, has endorsed the Durham option as the most fiscally sound.

“Olver misinformed the public and the county on costs,” said Bonnie Hauser, a spokeswoman for Orange County Voice.

Bob Sallach, Olver president, said the numbers were as accurate as possible and approved by town and county staff.

How short is the short run

How long local trash will be headed out of the county ultimately depends on one factor: how long it takes the county to develop an alternative solution.

The commissioners plan to start the process this month in a meeting with local governments.

But given the many options available, from relatively unproven waste-to-energy technologies to regional partnerships, it could be years from conception to ribbon cutting.

“Unless there’s some violent upheaval in the current direction that we’re going, I doubt that it would be in 10 years,” Sassaman said.

Developing a partnership with nearby towns, counties and possibly UNC, meanwhile, could be logistically challenging, especially since the county’s neighbors are not facing the same time crunch.

While the Orange County landfill is scheduled to close in early 2012, Wake County has 20 years more of life left in its landfill, while Alamance has up to 60, Wilson said.

UNC is also not on the clock, since it began shipping its waste to a different private transfer station in Durham about a year ago.

“We have a great working relationship with the county,” Tipton said. “But I think when it comes to actual infrastructure, they’re a little bit more challenging.”

Past collaborative projects, like one to capture methane at the current landfill, have consumed large amounts of resources and time.

Tipton said whether Orange County has a waste management solution in 20 years is a “flip of a coin.”

No matter what Orange County decides to do down the road, waste management experts say a local waste transfer station will remain a necessity.

“If we get an alternative technology, that you’re still going to have to get the waste to that facility,” Wilson said.

“The issue of a transfer station will continue to reoccur in the meantime.”

Not all parties are convinced, however. Jacobs said there could be other viable alternatives.

Ultimately, the county might find that its waste management problems just don’t have a clean solution.

“At some point we’re going to have to decide what is the best option, as opposed to the option that we feel cornered into taking,” Jacobs said.

“If those two happen to coincide, then so be it.”


A look at a few of the options facing Orange County

Transfer Station

Commissioners have put the option on the back burner for now. Many residents took issue with the county’s two-year search process, particularly the Rogers Road community, which has been affected by the landfill for decades. But waste management experts say a local transfer station will be necessary no matter what the county chooses.


Commissioners have ruled out building another landfill in Orange County, but the possibility of a sharing one with neighboring counties remains. Building a landfill, however, faces stringent regulatory hurdles and vehement community backlash.


These technologies convert trash into energy, usually by burning it. Most are still in development phases and have yet to be used on a wide scale. Orange County does not produce enough waste to operate its own facility, making regional partnerships a must. A waste-to-energy facility is also sure to face its own siting, regulatory and financial
challenges and possible opposition from environmentalists concerned about emissions.

What is a transfer station? And why did Orange County think about building one?

A waste transfer station serves as a central collection point for trash before it is shipped somewhere else. Smaller garbage trucks, which typically serve homes and businesses, bring their waste to the facility each day. That trash is then sorted, consolidated and loaded onto bigger trucks headed for a landfill or other disposal facility.

The county first started looking into a transfer station because the Orange County Landfill, located in the historically black Rogers Road community, is expected to reach capacity in early 2012. The landfill opened in 1972, and community members have accused local governments of environmental racism.

Commissioners explored the transfer station option for two years but failed to settle on a site as divisions emerged between groups of residents, waste management staff and consultants managing the process.

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