Talkin’ trash

By: Tom Campbell - Contributing columnist

Every two months, North Carolinians throw away enough trash to fill dumpsters, lined back to back, across the entire length of Interstate 40. Our 10 million residents generate some 12 million tons of trash each year.

Cullen Browder, investigative journalist for WRAL-TV, produced an insightful half-hour documentary on our waste problems, reporting our state is getting buried under mounting piles of trash, taxing the life expectancy of our landfills and threatening serious trash troubles in the near future.

Like most states, we began a program of recycling years ago and it has reduced some of the burdens on landfills, but we must do more.

Here are some suggestions. Don’t bag recyclables. Plastic bags, especially dark bags, make it difficult for landfill employees to know what’s in them. It is too labor intensive (and potentially dangerous) to open each bag, so most go into the dump and are not recycled. Wake County officials estimate that about 10 percent of the recyclables collected end up in the landfill because they are in plastic bags. The better way is to put them loose into recycle containers.

Mattresses and electronics also present problems. Discarded mattresses are big, bulky and don’t break down. It is difficult to recycle mattresses, however there are some thrift stores that will accept them, clean and sanitize them and offer them for re-sale. The best advice is to hang on to your old mattress a little longer. Under state law computers, televisions and other electric devices with a cord must be recycled, but must be placed in specially designated sections of landfills.

The biggest, most troublesome and potentially hazardous threats come from the plastic shopping bags so commonplace today. They don’t decompose and most landfills have to pay workers to pluck them out of disposed materials before they fly away, creating litter and threatening our wildlife. Many grocery and other stores offer bins where plastic bags can be recycled.

Sadly, manufacturers have increased the size and amount of product packaging, both to reduce the all too prevalent shoplifting, as well as damage resulting from shipping. In addition to the box, a new TV also is packed in lots of Styrofoam to avoid breakage in shipping. A lot of this packaging ends up in landfills or recycling.

City and county residents pay taxes to provide for landfills, but many dumps barely cover the costs to maintain them and our legislature may have created further problems. Hidden deep within HB56, an environmental bill, was a provision declaring that we no longer are required to dispose of trash in the government landfill nearest us and may shop for lower disposal rates elsewhere. While everyone wants to save money, let’s not fool ourselves. If the government landfill site doesn’t generate enough money to cover costs, how will they offset deficits? Taxpayers will pay one way or another.

The larger problem, however, is that citing, permitting and opening new landfills is virtually impossible, because few of us want the smell or unsightliness that accompanies such a facility. We aren’t going to eliminate our need to dispose of trash and we cannot just dump it alongside a road or vacant lot, so it behooves us all to unite in efforts to help extend the life of our landfills. And that’s no trash talk.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues. Contact him at

Tom Campbell

Contributing columnist