Sunday, April 21, 2024

As landfill grows, New Hanover County’s composting program needs food

New Hanover County has the ability to reduce the growth of its landfill, but its composting equipment is currently operating well below capacity.

Each landfill cell costs $300,000 an acre to build, not including the price to purchase land. This is a section of an 80-acre hill. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Each landfill cell costs $300,000 an acre to build, not including the price to purchase land. This is a section of an 80-acre hill. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY—Between steaming, decomposing yard waste, rotting food, and the pungent stench of methane sits “Huckleberry.”

“Huckleberry” is New Hanover County’s in-vessel composter, currently operating at one fourth of its capacity. Though half of all material that ends up in the landfill is potentially compostable, for now, food continues to waste.

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The county composter

It’s been more than one year since New Hanover County Commissioners approved the purchase of the in-vessel composter for $369,884. Joe Suleyman, New Hanover County’s director of environmental management, pitched the composting pilot program to commissioners in January 2017.

Suleyman used a data-driven approach, showing that 50 percent of what goes into the landfill can be composted.

“If you really want to save the landfill space this is how you do it,” Suleyman said.

With yard, construction, cardboard and plastic recycling already managed, he convinced the commissioners to consider a method of recycling food waste. 

“We’re diverting everything we can except food,” he said.

Economics of sustainability

Composting offers not just an environmental benefit – it also offers an economic one. 

To build one landfill “cell” costs $300,000 per acre.

“In this part of the county land is going for $80,000 to $100,000 an acre so you’re looking at $400,000 just to build one acre,” Suleyman said.

“That’s 80 acres,” he said, pointing toward the landfill’s green hills. “There’s quite a big footprint there.”

The county is currently operating its pilot composting program under a demonstration permit. Soon, Suleyman hopes to obtain a longterm permit from North Carolina to cut costs lost in the landfill.

“You do the math, it’s a lot of sunk capital cost that you’ll never get back,” he said. “You’re investing in something that won’t pay you back.”

Accepting food waste from University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the county receives its fill in intermittent gaps. While students are out on break twice per year, Huckleberry is getting hungry.

Composting 101

Biodegradable organic waste can be recycled naturally. From eggshells to grass trimmings to banana peels, organic materials can be combined to produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Huckleberry is currently producing 20 cubic yards of finished mulch a week – far less than its operating capacity. Suleyman says there just isn’t enough food to feed Huckleberry.

“We’ve got more yard waste than we know what to do with, plenty of wood waste, plenty of animal manure, we just need food,” he said.

The entire operation requires one piece of equipment – Huckleberry – that Suleyman controls from an app.

“You do the math, it’s a lot of sunk capital cost that you’ll never get back,” — Joe Suleyman

“I can control this whole thing on my phone,” Suleyman said. 

Always churning, the machine combines food waste, wood chips and double-ground yard waste. Constant airflow gives the bacteria oxygen, constant temperature prevents pathogens. It runs non-stop and can divert 72 tons of food waste away from the landfill per month.

“It’s very labor un-intensive, very equipment un-intensive and it leaves a small footprint,” Suleyman said. 

More food

According to Suleyman, UNCW fronts the cost of delivering its food waste through its contract with a local, private, solid-waste hauler that brings food waste to the landfill.

For now, the program relies on deliveries of food waste rather than retrieving it.

Though a contract has not yet been formalized, New Hanover County Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) is considering adding its food waste to the composter.

“NHRMC is in the early stages of exploring a composting program,” NHRMC’s spokesperson, Julian March wrote in an email.

Members of 40 EATS, a restaurant group that focuses on environmental sustainability, toured the composting facility earlier this month. According to Rx Restaurant and Bar owner James Doss, 40EATS’ partnership with the composting facility has been in the works since Jan.

The group will incorporate composting in its upcoming “Revive the River” Benefit Dinner for Cape Fear River Watch on April 8. Eight restaurants will compost all food waste produced from the dinner.

Suleyman ordered 10, 35-gallon compost containers for participating 40EATS restaurants to start contributing kitchen scraps. The large bins cost about $35 – a small cost to secure environmentally-conscious, consistent food waste producers.

“It’s a one-time cost for us and if it gets them on board then we did our job,” he said.

The group even included contributing to the county’s composting facility to its 2018 mission, with the “ultimate goal of county-wide composting.”

“Next year if I can convince county management that it’s the right thing to do, well buy a truck, hire a driver and well do a collection route,” Suleyman said.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect 40EATS’ composting involvement.

Johanna Ferebee can be reached at or @j__ferebee on Twitter

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