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Food waste in landfills produces toxic gas. Cary wants residents to help stop it.

News & Observer - 2/16/2024

From paper to pet food, coffee grounds to last night’s dinner scraps, many everyday items end up in a landfill that don’t need to be there.

About a quarter of the garbage Cary sends to the county landfill is food waste, according to local environmentalists. While food scraps may seem harmless, they emit methane, a toxic gas that warms the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

As part of a new food-waste program, Cary opened the Citizen’s Convenience Center on North Dixon Avenue last year, where people can dispose of accepted materials. Last week, the town opened a second waste center at 425 Mills Park Drive in western Cary.

Residents can drop off food waste, coffee grounds, paper towels, napkins and other materials at either center to keep them out of the Wake County landfill. To date, the town has collected 80 tons of food scraps from 26,000 drop-offs.

What happens at the landfill?

Srijana Guilford, the town’s waste strategist, teaches Cary residents how to compost food waste at home so that it can be used on farms.

“A really important part of this is that the drop-offs are opportunities for people to turn scraps into compost and divert this from the landfill where it doesn’t need to be,” she said.

Wake County has one operational landfill and many private ones that accept construction materials like bricks and lumber. The South Wake Landfill, located on the border with Holly Springs and Apex, takes garbage from the county’s businesses and over 1.1 million residents.

By 2040, the landfill will be full, said Bianca Howard, outreach supervisor for the county’s Solid Waste Management division. More food waste drop-offs are one way to extend that.

“The fact Cary opened a second drop-off site is huge,” Howard said. “Landfill space is limited. The more we can keep out things that can be composted or recycled, the longer we have the landfill as an asset for things that don’t have a future in recycling or composting.”

In 2019, Wake County studied what was being thrown away at the landfill. Food made up over 25% of the waste. Howard said while the landfill captures methane and other toxic gases for energy use, the food waste can be put to more good use by being composted.

“We’ve invested in some complex systems to manage that change and manage landfill gas,” Howard said. “Compost is used to build soil and create new crops.”

‘If it grows, it goes’

“If it grows, it goes,” Guilford tells residents just learning about composting.

“While you’re doing your meal prep at home and you’re cutting up vegetables, peeling potatoes or you have leftovers that aren’t going to be turned into something else, we want you to think of your food waste (as something) that, instead of going into your trash, can be turned into compost,” she said.

Food scraps include raw and cooked eggs, fruits, solid dairy like cheese, breads and grains, baked goods, cooked and raw meat, and bones. Wet and dry pet food, pizza boxes, paper plates and towels, and coffee grounds can also be disposed of at the centers.

The town’s website lists materials that are notaccepted including plastic bags, metal and Styrofoam.

Food scraps can be collected in jars, a compost bin or in a compostable bag. Cary residents can get compostable bags or Biodegradable Products Institute bags for free at the convenience centers or buy them in grocery stores.

Going back to the earth

The food scraps Cary collects are locally composted and given to Good Hope Farm, which gets roughly 10% of the weight of collected food scraps each year for its soil and crops.

Last year, the farm got 10,000 pounds of compost, according to Sarah Justice, the environmental outreach program coordinator for the town.

Cary bought Good Hope Farm for historic preservation. For 100 years, it produced tobacco, which is taxing on the soil, Justice said. Now, it produces organic produce, and composting helps to grow successful crops.

“It’s such a cool aspect of the program because it’s really rare in an urban setting,” she said. “We buy produce here, then take those food scraps from the produce and have them composted to go back to the place where you’re going to buy produce from next spring, potentially. It’s all going back to the earth to receive those benefits.”

The new convenience center operates from sunrise to sunset every day of the week. The Citizen’s Convenience Center, near downtown Cary, is open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m.

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