Charleston County employees in puffy protective suits and face masks sorted through tons of smelly garbage Wednesday to get a clearer picture of what residents throw away.
That knowledge is essential to create a new plan for handling garbage that's cleaner and greener than what the county has been doing for the past 20 years.
The last garbage truck will pull up to Charleston County's trash incinerator in North Charleston next month and leave its final load.
For two decades, the county has burned much of its garbage in the facility off Spruill Avenue, but the contract with the company that runs the facility expires at the end of December. After it closes, trash will go to the county's Bees Ferry Landfill or to the Oakridge Landfill in Dorchester County.
Garbage marked for Oakridge will be dumped first in one of two transfer stations in North Charleston, county leaders said Wednesday.
They also said they have short-term plans to handle the garbage that is now being burned in the incinerator. And they are beginning to focus on long-term plans that boost "green" strategies, including increasing recycling and using new technologies to minimize waste.
Trash that isn't burned in the incinerator now is taken to the Bees Ferry Landfill, said Mitch Kessler of Kessler Consulting, whom the county hired to help develop a long-term plan for handling solid waste. And the county will continue to take some trash there after the incinerator closes, he said.
"The concept is to distribute it so it's not a burden in any one place," Kessler said.
The county also will take at least 250 tons of trash each day to the Oakridge Landfill in Dorchester County, Kessler said. The county has signed a two-year contract with Oakridge, he said. And it has selected two transfer sites where cities and towns can dump trash they collect from residents, and the county in turn can pick it up and transport it to Oakridge.
One site, for which the county already has signed a contract, is Fennell Container Co., off Ashley Phosphate Road in North Charleston. The company, which is run by Republic Services, is in Dorchester County, just across the Charleston County line.
The second site, for which the county is in final contract negotiations, is in the Stark Industrial Park off Leeds Avenue and Azalea Drive in North Charleston, Kessler said. That site is run by Carolina Waste, he said.
County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said the county will pay less per ton to dispose of its garbage after the incinerator closes. It costs the county $49 per ton to use the incinerator, he said, while taking trash to the Bee's Ferry Landfill costs $20 per ton.
Oakridge will charge the county $19.50 per ton, he said. But it will cost the county another $15 per ton in transport costs, for a total of $34.50 per ton. That's still much cheaper than the cost of burning trash in the incinerator, Pryor said.
Kessler said county officials met with representatives from municipalities throughout the county Wednesday morning, and they were optimistic about the county's plans. The two transfer stations minimize the distance garbage trucks must travel to dump the trash, he said.
Kessler also said the county got the go-ahead Wednesday from the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control to expand its yard-waste composting facility at Bees Ferry. "We will be able to implement the 100 percent composting of yard waste," Kessler said.
Now, much yard waste brought to Bees Ferry is dumped in the landfill because there isn't space available to compost it, he said.
Being able to compost all of the yard waste will increase the county's rate of recycling by 10 percent, Kessler has said.
That's important because County Council voted earlier this year to work toward boosting its rate of recycling to 40 percent from 10 percent of the stream of municipal solid waste.
Kessler said DHEC also gave the county permission to launch a six-month pilot program to use some of the yard-waste compost as cover for the landfill. The county will use compost that still has fragments of plastic from the bags in which the waste was stored, Kessler said.
Now, employees at the landfill cover it at the end of each day with a combination of soil and ash from the incinerator, he said.
Pryor said the new method will save money because the county will no longer have to purchase and transport soil.
The county also this week launched a "waste composition survey," which essentially is an audit of scientifically selected samples of trash. County employees and representatives from Kessler Consulting donned protective clothing and face masks and sorted through tons of trash, clearly accounting for what had been tossed out.
It's "a mirror back to the county," Kessler said. The purpose is to find out how much the county can eventually recover, he said.
County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who showed up to take a look at the trash, said she was glad to see that in her sample, not too many bottles and cans were thrown in the trash instead of being recycled. But, she said, a lot of recyclable paper was thrown away.
Pryor said county leaders don't yet know how their increased recycling goal will affect household recycling efforts in the long run. In the short run, he said, not much will change.
Kessler said that in addition to increasing recycling and composting, the county will look at new technologies for disposing of solid waste. The county put out a request for information from companies that do such work, he said. And 67 companies requested the documents they need to respond. He doesn't know how many will actually follow through and submit reports.
Pryor said County Council will take a closer look at up to five such proposals to see if any of them could work for the county.