Rethinking plastic: Charleston County expected to decide on yard waste bags

Plastic bags like the one seen here at Bees Ferry Landfill make it difficult for Charleston County to sell mulch and compost to wholesalers.

Brad Nettles

Ron Tibbetts looks from his pick-up truck window at a 15-foot-tall compost pile the size of a baseball field and sees an opportunity lost.

As supervisor of the Bees Ferry Landfill compost operation, Tibbetts oversees 15 employees who recycle Charleston County's leaves, grass clippings and tree limbs.

Their operation keeps tons of this organic material out of the landfill, which lengthens its life and saves taxpayers money.

But the operation isn't working as well as it could.

The enormous pile that Tibbetts is looking at is surplus -- composted material that the county can't sell and has no other use for.

The reason? This pile contains millions of small but visible bits of ground up plastic bags.

Asked how much of the county's composted material goes on the surplus pile, Tibbetts can't cite a specific percentage, but adds, "More of it goes on the surplus pile than we ship out."

That could change soon.

When Charleston County Council meets tonight, it's expected to decide whether to revive its ban on yard waste in plastic bags.

County Council was poised to have Bees Ferry accept yard waste only in paper bags as of June 30, but it backed off after public complaints about the higher cost and ineffectiveness of paper bags.

Chairman Teddie Pryor said he thinks enough council members have grown comfortable with the idea.

"I think it's the consensus of council that we want to move forward," he said. "I think everybody is into recycling now."

Waiting on the county

Mount Pleasant and Charleston already changed their ordinances to require residents to use paper bags, but both municipalities held off on enforcing them until the county makes up its mind.

Mount Pleasant Administrator Eric DeMoura said the town undertook a big public information campaign to encourage residents to change to paper bags, but it did not publicize the fact it still will accept lawn clippings in plastic bags.

"I switched to paper bags, myself," DeMoura said. "I like them a lot."

Michael Metzler, deputy director of operations for the Charleston's Public Service Department, said he is waiting to see if the county proceeds with the plastic ban.

"We'll follow their lead," Metzler said. If they ban plastic bags, "we'll ask the county to be reasonable and let us phase this thing in."

Metzler said it would not be feasible for the city's collection crews to separate out the yard waste from the plastic bags as they collect it.

Cutting the lawn waste from plastic bags at the landfill also would be a labor-intensive, dangerous job as most is scooped up and ground up shortly after it arrives.

Cooking up compost

Composting yard waste is a months-long process that goes faster in warmer and wetter weather.

First, local dump trucks -- mostly from local municipalities -- dump the limbs, leaves and clippings in a big pile, where an excavator with a special claw lifts it up into a shredder.

The shredded material is scooped into a truck and deposited into a series of rows, where another special machine turns it over about once a week to aerate the pile and help it cook down.

Once cooked, some of the material is hauled over to the solid-waste landfill and used as cover material at day's end to keep away birds and scavenging animals.

A small amount is fed through a screener to get rid of the larger chunks and to produce a fine compost that the county sells for $1.50 a bag or $10 a ton.

Tibbetts said once paper bags are shredded, they instantly blend into the other material. However, the plastic only will break down if exposed to sunlight. Even as the compost piles are turned, most plastic bag bits remain hidden inside.

"If it's hidden, it lasts forever," he said, adding that Bees Ferry's 22-year-old debris from Hurricane Hugo still is littered with plastic.

The county started composting all its yard waste in 2009, an important early step toward its goal of recycling 40 percent of its waste stream. But finding a way to get all the material off county property has been a sticking point.

Tibbetts said he has talked to companies interested in buying the county's compost, but the plastic bits are not acceptable to them.

It's unclear what will become of the surplus pile. If the plastic ban goes through, it could gradually be depleted over time as landfill cover.

If not, then it likely will continue to grow.

"We've taken very little from it," Tibbetts said. "It's grown twice as big as what it was when I started a year ago."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.