At every nearly every fork in the solid waste policy road, Orange County has taken the wrong path. Now we are paying a heavy price for the political cage we built to trap ourselves.
Starting with the doomed landfill search in the early 90’s, County leadership insisted on siting a mega-landfill (many potential sites were well over 1,000 acres), while forbidding public discussion of how waste reduction could minimize site size. It was a process that could not have been better designed for failure.
In 1992, solid waste staff insisted that we needed a landfill by 1996 because that was when the Eubanks facility would be maxed out. Proponents of a waste-reduction based approach, including myself, studied the available data and concluded in our report that the Eubanks landfill would actually last until sometime around 2003. In retrospect, we were clearly way off the mark. It was actually going to be good for twice as long as we predicted and seven times as long as the solid waste professionals stated.
Our point was that we had plenty of time to delay the landfill search while devising a waste reduction plan that would require a much smaller – and therefore easier to site – landfill footprint. This suggestion was dismissed and the mega-landfill search process reached its predictable end when County leaders threw up their hands and blamed the failure on the NIMBY citizenry.
So the issue drifted on, unresolved through the years. In the meantime, despite periodic requests from concerned citizens and Rogers Road landfill neighbors for fair compensation and mitigation, nothing but lip service was offered those bearing the burden on behalf of the rest of the County. Each time this issue arose, the neighbors and activists became more frustrated. As County officials sat on their hands, the charge of environmental racism added more heat to the mix. Hyperbole grew in the form of such stories as buzzards threatening little children. Common sense and fairness were increasingly difficult to recognize.
As the Commissioners ignored the elephant in the room over the years, hoping that their successors would be the ones to grab this snake by the tail, they probably sensed that we would eventually default to the easy way out – shipping our waste over the horizon to some distant god-forsaken community, some Rogers Rd. with another name and faceless people who would never confront them.
At this late hour, Mayor Chilton of Carrboro made a proposal to consider our own small transfer station on the edge of our urban zone and adjacent to the I-40 interstate. This proposal would save taxpayers an estimated $750,000 a year and certainly more in years to come. It would also allow us a last chance to look at other strategies for waste minimization and processing without being bound by a regional contract.
Some local leaders are aware of serious local discussion of a promising technology that removes nearly all recyclables from the solid waste stream and converts the rest to biofuel. We all know of the increase in products made from recycled materials. If we can shift our perspective away from looking at solid waste as trash to be disposed of and see it as a resource stream, we can get on the path to taking full responsibility for the waste we generate.
Yet here we are at another fork in the solid waste policy road. The Commissioners are defaulting again to the path of least responsibility. They are simultaneously closing the Eubanks landfill before it is filled, thus ending revenue generation for the Rogers Road fund, while committing us to a fiscally uncertain situation in which we are beholden to others for our waste disposal. We seem poised to finally tie all the mistakes of the past into a Gordian knot that will remind us that we proved incapable of putting our mouthings about sustainability into practice.