Paper Versus Plastic a Hot Topic in Charleston

October 17, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveBy Warwick Jones
Citizen Reporter

The issue over plastic in yard waste is likely to soon come to a head in Charleston County.

Earlier this year, the county delayed the implementation of an ordinance to stop disposal of yard waste at Bees Ferry if it contained plastic.

As most of the waste is collected in plastic bags, the ban on plastic would require major changes in the collection of garden trash by the municipalities.

Predictably, some were not easy about the proposed change, particularly North Charleston. A change in collection methods would be costly.

Most municipalities chose to go in future with paper bags. But North Charleston and many citizens were not convinced of their efficacy.

It’s unclear whether Charleston County really thought it could come up with a better solution or it simply needed time to placate the critics.

County Attorney Joe Dawson was asked to find out details of costs associated with alternative solutions. He reported his findings to the finance committee yesterday.

It is possible that North Charleston and other municipalities may choose an alternative to paper bags. And indeed, the county may finance the municipalities in some way if they go to an alternative.

County staff was to make a further study and to talk with the municipalities. But one thing appears certain: the county will not change its mind on banning plastic in garden waste at Bees Ferry.

The plastic makes the waste unsalable and it needs to be sold so the life of the Bees Ferry landfill can be extended. And with the limited options available to the county, the landfill’s life needs to be extended as far as possible.

Dawson reported that the cost of a 95-gallon trashcan, as used presently by the municipalities, costs about $50. It was thought by Council that garden waste could be deposited in these cans and collected by the municipalities in the same manner as ordinary trash.

Staff estimated the cost of the cans for North Charleston at about $1 million. So who pays for the cans? If it were the citizens, should there be a credit for the cost on property tax or waste-collection fees. And indeed, should there be some credit for the extra cost of paper bags over plastic? Staff was to consider these possibilities.

Council member Colleen Condon said that she had discussed the issue with the City of Charleston. It indicated that it was happy to take the paper bag route.

It’s understandable that the trashcan alternative may not be acceptable. Garden waste is collected by the city in open trucks at present. Using cans would require buying conventional garbage collection trucks, or modifying existing trucks to be able to lift the cans.

Either alternative would appear costly. There is also the issue of storage. Many houses on the Peninsula are on small lots with limited space to place trash cans, particularly around the College of Charleston, where houses are split into rental units.

Dawson also spoke of buying debagging equipment to extract the plastic from the garden waste at a collection point. The cost would be about $1 million, he estimated. But he also said that only 80 percent of the plastic would be removed, which seems to suggest it was not a real alternative.

Dawson also spoke of shipping the waste out of the county at a cost of $2 million. He didn’t say that that was an annual figure, but one suspects that it was an estimated yearly cost. And then there was the possibility of burning the waste.

An incinerator would cost about $140,000 but he indicated that one would not be enough. He made no estimate as to how many would be needed.