The space designated for New Hanover County’s trash is slowly but surely filling up as a growing population and natural disasters push more trash into the county’s landfill.
The New Hanover County landfill is divided into north and south landfill areas separated by a gravel access road. The county is currently closing the northern section — a nearly 160-foot-tall garbage pile that will soon be covered by layers of sand, a permanent liner, soil and grass.
“When it’s all done, you should have a nice green hill,” said Joe Suleyman, the director of the New Hanover County Department of Environmental Management.
The closure, which will take place when part of the landfill reaches capacity, should be completed in the next 45 days, Suleyman said. Meanwhile, the department is working to temporarily close several cells in the southern part of the landfill, which opened in 2019.
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Earlier this month, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved an agreement to complete the temporary closure. According to Suleyman, the closure will help limit the amount of sewage and methane the cell releases.
In the last three years or so, the closed cells in the south wing have filled up due to the increasing amount of garbage.
“That’s a quarter of what should have taken 40 years, and we’re in for three years,” Suleyman said. “It’s not that we’re getting less garbage in these cells, there’s so much more coming in.”
Each May, a plane flies over the New Hanover County landfill to examine how much space has filled in over the past year and to forecast how much space is left.
When Suleyman first received a permit for the southern portion of the landfill in 2015, it was estimated that the plaza would house the district’s garbage by 2093 — 71 years from now.
However, new projections say there will be room for trash by 2050 – 28 years in the future. At first, this new estimate shocked Suleyman.
“When I saw that, I was like, ‘Okay, someone forgot to bring a two or something because that’s not possible,’” he said.
The population of New Hanover County has steadily increased over the past few decades, from 202,698 in 2010 to 225,702 in 2020, according to data from the US Census Bureau.
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Expanding the landfill is not an option. The property is bordered by US 421 to the west, the Northeast Cape Fear River to the east, a creek to the north and a materials facility to the south.
“We can’t get any bigger,” Suleyman said. “That’s all we get.”
This landfill will be the last in New Hanover County as state statutes regulate the location of new landfills and the small area of New Hanover County. The county is approximately 191 square miles and is the second smallest county in North Carolina.
“There will never be another landfill in New Hanover County,” Suleyman said, “and some say there will never be another landfill east of I-95.”
That’s forcing district staff to get creative, Suleyman said. They have invested in compaction equipment, waste screening and recycling initiatives.
There’s a lot that can be kept out of landfill through recycling, Suleyman said.
For example, they have been working to salvage much of the construction debris that is being dumped. Construction waste accounts for 30% of the landfill intake.
Pallets are mulched and used to generate electricity at a power plant near Southport, shingles are melted back into asphalt and the sheetrock can be used by peanut farmers as fertilizer, Suleyman said.
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The landfill was hit hard by the amount of debris that arrived after Hurricane Florence in 2018. In 2018, the landfill received about 356 tons of garbage. Over the next year, that total increased by 110 tons to approximately 466 tons, which was picked up as residents cleaned up the storm.
For months, the line of cars stretched all the way to US 421 en route to the landfill, Suleyman said. He worries that another natural disaster could bring a similarly unexpected surge in garbage levels, which could throw the landfill’s forecasts out of whack.
Resolving the space issue will likely require a “one-size-fits-all solution,” Suleyman said. Opportunities could include exporting the county’s waste, finding a way to turn waste into energy, or enforcing recycling more strictly. District officials plan to hold strategy meetings to discuss the best ways to use the landfill’s available airspace, Suleyman said.
Neu-Hannover residents can do their part by recycling and avoiding items with multiple layers of packaging. Suleyman said it will be important for New Hanover County to continue to explore innovative ways to save landfill space.
“I don’t want to wait until 2049 to say, ‘What are we going to do? We only have one year left,” he said. “We need to start planning now”
Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected].