Talkin’ Trash Takeaways


On October 27 at The Gathering Place, five Harrisonburg-area solid waste managers offered a room full of caring citizens insight into how our trash is collected and processed and what we may be able to do to make it all … less wasteful. Masterful moderating on the part of JMU Professor of Political Science Rob Alexander and meaningful questions from the audience helped us gather these Talkin’ Trash takeaways:

From Harsit Patel, Business Services Manager, Harrisonburg Public Works Department, overseeing municipal solid waste management:

Switching to the all-in-one trash collection from single stream (households separating and putting all recyclables in separate curbside bins) has increased our household recycling rate from 7-8% to 20-25%.

Of the approximately 40,000 tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generated by the city every year, only 11-12,000 tons is picked up from curbside by the city trash trucks. The rest is from businesses and private communities who contract their own trash hauling services.

Getting an accurate recycling rate of MSW is clunky at best due to all the various entities involved and the combining of trash with other municipalities in the collection process from non-city trucks. Harrisonburg generally reports a 27-32% recycling rate. For 2015 it was 39%. See the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan for definitions of Principal Recyclable Materials (PRM) and Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) which are used to calculate recycling rates. Note that yard waste does factor into the recycling rate equation but not other compostables, for example, food waste.

Yard waste is currently being picked up with bulk items and all landfilled. At one time it was used for mulch and/or compost. It is possible we can go back to that. It requires separate trucks that get poor gas mileage so ends up costing more. It would also require a change in policy for the county to return to mulching and/or composting.

The city does have a tiered price structure for trash collected from downtown. Charges are related to the amount of trash produced but they are allowed to fill an unlimited number of recycling bins.

Changes need to come from the top. Pay as you throw system of trash service payment, bag and styrofoam bans would all be powerful tools in reducing our waste.

It is desirable to maintain the mindset of source separation. New residents are still being offered recycle bins to maintain this habit. Separating recyclables may have an impact on the success of their recovery from the van der Linde facility.

For some recyclable commodities, the amount collected curbside by the city was not large enough to have a viable market.

From Linda Zirkle, Rockingham County recycling:

The county has five container sites accepting source separated recyclables. They are accessible at most times and accept a wide variety of recyclables including Goodwill items but no yard wastes, nor are there composting opportunities.

The county turned in a 28% recycle rate to the DEQ for 2015; the MSW was 54000 tons. Because of its rural nature, it has only a 15% state mandated recycling rate compared to the city with a 25% rate mandated by the state. The county recycles lots of metal.

Yard debris and brush is ground and mixed with crushed glass, dirt and other things and used as a daily cap for the landfill. Mulch is not currently available to the public.

The various towns in Rockingham County each have their own trash programs.

She would like to see a bottle bill.

Rockingham County has about 380 acres at its landfill site. The present cell has  3 – 4 years’ life left which will satisfy needs until 2020. Work on a new cell will start in 2018, will be complete by 2020 and will go through 2026. There is enough land to build cells to last another 30 years past that.*

The county hauls all the plastic they collect to Sonoco Recycling in Fishersville for recycling. They do not get any money for this.*

From Eric Walter, Black Bear Composting founder and chief composting officer, Crimora, VA:

28% of household waste is compostable. There is huge potential for composting here but not enough people willing to separate their organics from the rest of their trash to make his facility financially viable. State policy does not support this as well. It is cheap to landfill. Other neighboring states, including North Carolina and Maryland have bans on yard waste in landfills which leads to successful mulching businesses.

Our policy makers will not do anything without public input. They need to be told that we care about this. As long as all they see is trash being hauled away they will not care what happens to it.

He is hoping to keep the current composting stream viable by finding a way to have it hauled to other composters since he will no longer be collecting after the end of this year.

From Peter van der Linde and Andrea Johnson of van der Linde Recycling in Troy, VA:

A new four minute video of their municipal solid waste sorting and separation process was shown. Their company was founded on the desire to keep recoverable resources out of landfills. Based on the idea that this can be done most effectively by sorting through the entire waste stream and not depend on the public to separate out recyclables, they are motivated by finding salable items and successfully sorting and bundling them to create marketable commodities.

Organics in the waste stream they receive are a definite concern and do affect the quality of some of the resources they are able to sort out. The organics currently all end up being landfilled as they are too contaminated to effectively compost. The company is continually seeking ways to improve their process and are considering distributing “biobags” in which customers can collect organics to put in their trash to keep it physically separated.

The van der Linde facility reported a 25% diversion rate for 2015 which is from a large and diverse waste stream including a lot of unrecyclable items like mattresses and furniture. They are successfully recovering 75-80% of all recyclables from this waste stream. The rest is falling through the cracks or too dirty to sell.

Recyclables are sold on the spot market; they do not have any contracts. Their license does not allow them to store materials on site to, for instance, wait for better commodity prices.

As feasible, they hold single stream recyclable material delivered to them on the side to be run through the process separately on a daily basis.*

Virginia is the second biggest importer of trash in the nation  – second only to Pennsylvania. It is a big money maker for Virginia. Landfilling is big business and politically powerful here which makes it minimally-regulated and cheap.

Contact information for the waste managers featured at the forum:

  • Harsit Patel: Harsit.Patel [at], 540-434-5928
  • Linda Zirkle: lzirkle [at], 540-564-3008
  • Eric Walter: info [at], 888-666-4712
  • van der Linde Recycling: info [at], 877-981-0891

Many thanks to all the participants and audience members at this forum!

*From personal communication after the forum.