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When you think about progressive composting and recycling programs, big cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles might come to mind—yet one of the most efficient composting facilities in the world is in Appalachian Tennessee.Because of this plant, the majority of the county’s waste is composted or recycled.
Sevier County, Tennessee, is home to the twin tourist destinations of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and attracts more than 11 million visitors per year. Gatlinburg is a quaint mountain town packed with quirky stores, restaurants, moonshine shops, and an aquarium. Pigeon Forge is home to the Dollywood amusement park. These towns are poised at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which covers roughly a third of the county.
Perhaps it’s this proximity to the natural world that helped inspire Sevier County’s unique approach to waste disposal. When it opened in 1991, the Sevier Solid Waste Composting Facility was one of the first in the world to use rotating drums, or “digesters,” for breaking down compost. Because of this plant, the majority of the county’s waste is composted or recycled. Today, it’s still a rare breed.
“There’s about 12 or so [composting facilities] in the world like this,” explains Tom Leonard, general manager of Sevier Solid Waste. “Every one of them has gotten some design feature from here, because we’re one of the oldest.”
As we walk around the facility, Leonard points to a grassy rise in the distance. “That back there is our old Class 1 landfill, but we don’t use it anymore.”Measures of success
About 100,000 tons of solid waste and treated sewage pass through this facility every year—and an astounding 70 percent is diverted from landfills by being composted or recycled. That’s compared to 34.5 percent of all U.S. waste that was diverted in 2012, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. San Francisco, declared the greenest city in America by the Siemens Green City Index, recycled 77 percent of its waste in 2010, but was the only North American city of the 27 listed in the index to recycle more than Sevier County.
The county’s waste diversion rate becomes even more impressive when Leonard explains that 99 percent of the county’s waste is diverted from its Class 1 landfill—the most environmentally harmful type, requiring heavy lining to prevent runoff, careful regulatory oversight, and decades of maintenance. Garbage in these landfills is eventually covered up, but it never really goes away, Leonard says.
“I just don’t like the word ‘forever,’ because that’s a long time. So what we’re doing is, we’re stabilizing the material back down to its form, and our ultimate goal is not to put anything from this plant into a landfill.”"Our ultimate goal is not to put anything from this plant into a landfill.”
Another unique component to Sevier County’s approach: residents and businesses aren’t required to separate recyclables from their daily waste. There are no recycling bins for home pickup, and the only items people are required to separate are construction and demolition materials, electronics, and tires. The separation of recyclables happens on the back end, as a part of the composting process. (While cardboard can be composted, citizens are asked to separate it because it makes more money for the county as recycled cardboard than as compost.)
In the end, this facility is financially self-sustaining, thanks in part to the money saved by not sending waste to a Class 1 landfill, where most non-recyclable waste in the U.S. ends up. A great deal of money is also saved on transporting garbage to landfills, which are often far away from pickup locations because of the challenges of finding affordable, usable land.
The facility also ensures that waste management is relatively affordable for the county and its cities; the cost of handling waste is $40 per ton, lower than the national average. In Sevier County, these costs are covered in part through a $12-per-month fee for curbside pickup. The Waste Business Journal reported that the average cost to place a ton of municipal solid waste into a landfill in 2012 was $44.23.
Meanwhile, individuals get free compost, with the rest being used for city and county projects such as road maintenance.The recipe for compost
The tourist industry posed a unique dilemma when Sevier County administrators began seeking new waste disposal options in the late 1980s: “Because so much of our waste stream comes from our millions of visitors that come to the county every year, it’s almost impossible to get them to recycle in the way that we’d need them to,” explains Larry Waters, who has been Sevier County mayor since 1978. The county is home to nearly 94,000 people, a population dwarfed by the huge volume of tourists.
County administrators visited other sites where composting strategies had been implemented and ultimately contracted with Bedminster Bio-Conversion to build the original facility and operate it for the first few years.
Waters says that the county was the first to install a facility of this type. “We were pretty nervous about that—whether or not it was going to meet our needs and do what we needed it to do.”
However, the Sevier County facility would soon become a model for other, similar composting plants throughout the world. What’s more, the tourist industry proved to be a key advantage, since the high volumes of restaurant food waste are great for compost.“For us, [composting and recycling] is not only the right thing to do, it financially makes sense for us to do it, so it’s exciting.”
Today, the Sevier Solid Waste Composting Facility receives visitors from around the globe, seeking to gain insights from what Sevier County has learned through trial and error. More efficient processes and technologies have been developed over the lifetime of the facility, and even today operators are always on the lookout for better approaches, Leonard says.
Constant improvement is on Leonard’s mind as he guides me through the facility. We walk inside a huge structure covered with corrosion-resistant plastic, where broken-down materials are pulled from the ends of 185-foot-long cylindrical digesters that rotate slowly.
After three days, materials are pulled out of the digesters and placed onto a conveyor belt, which carries them into the next room. There, they’ll be sifted for glass and recyclables, then laid out into windrows for roughly 37 days. Windrows are narrow, long piles of material that are turned regularly to improve aeration and aid the breakdown into compost.
For all the streamlining this process has undergone, Leonard is today preoccupied with resolving two problems: First, he needs to reduce the moisture in these massive rooms of windrowed compost—not so much that the microorganisms breaking down the compost die, but enough to make it easier to separate glass from the moist compost. It’ll mean more glass recycling in the long run, and will increase the amount and quality of compost the facility can produce.
The second problem is how to make more efficient use of the plastics the facility collects. Many of them can be recycled, but there may be a more financially and environmentally efficient way to put them to use. Leonard believes this problem may soon be resolved with the type of innovative approach that has become the norm here. He hopes to sign a contract with the technology company PHG Energy soon, in the hopes of starting to convert used plastics into fuel within a year.
“We can produce about 6 megawatts of power from just our plastics,” Leonard says, enough to power about 2,400 homes per year.
“For us, [composting and recycling] is not only the right thing to do, it financially makes sense for us to do it, so it’s exciting,” Leonard says.
About 300 tons of garbage a day pass through the 188,000-square-foot Sevier Solid Waste Composting Facility in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and this tipping floor is where that garbage is first collected. The floor is enclosed by a woven, corrosion-resistant plastic. Garbage is funneled through five pits in the tipping floor and into up to five “digesters,” which are long, cylindrical drums that rotate 24 hours a day.
“Paper, food waste, cardboard—anything that’s organic can be broken down in our system,” explains Tom Leonard, general manager of the facility. Biosolids from the local wastewater treatment plant are also mixed in, and help contribute to the microorganisms that will eventually break down waste into compost.
Leonard explains how the composting process gets started. The tipping floor is where municipal waste and biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant are first collected before they’re funneled into rotating “digester” drums, which start the composting process.
Leading from the tipping floor to another enclosed structure, digesters rotate 24 hours a day. It takes three days for garbage to travel 185 feet along these drums. The three larger digesters are 14 feet in diameter, and two more measure 12 feet in diameter; all are slightly tilted toward the building where compost will eventually be removed.
“Basically, it’s breaking up all those bags and allowing all that stuff to mix together, so now you can get all your organics, all your food waste and paper waste, all mixing together, and then the bugs can start working on that,” Leonard explains. Microorganisms are naturally occurring in the garbage and sewage that enter the digesters. The process is aerobic, so air is blown into the digesters to keep the microorganisms alive and well.
The process of breaking down the waste creates a lot of energy, increasing temperatures in the middle of the digesters to between 160 or 170 degrees.
“They turn 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so about one revolution a minute,” explains Leonard, showcasing the digesters that kick-start the composting process. The functionality of these digesters has been improved over the years through trial and error, and now they serve as models for composting plants around the world.
Leonard points out the ends of the digesters, where garbage is removed after three days of constant rotation. By this time, much of the garbage resembles compost, but large pieces of plastic, metal, and other items that can’t be broken down into compost remain. The material that comes out of the digesters is transported by conveyer belt into the next room, where it’s sifted to remove larger items.
Construction materials such as wire, carpet, hoses, and large pieces of plastic aren’t allowed in everyday trash, since they can clog up the digester.
After the garbage is sifted, “there’s no organics left,” Leonard says. “It’s inert material, so it goes into a Class 3 landfill, which takes construction, demolition, vinyl siding, plastic, glass windows.” Leachate—runoff that has passed through waste and often carries elements and chemicals from that waste as a result—is minimal in Class 3 and Class 4 landfills, meaning these landfills are less harmful to the environment.
Most organic materials have started to break down into compost after three days in the digesters, but recyclables such as the metal can that Leonard is pictured with here still need to be sifted out. The conveyer belt to Leonard’s right transports the materials to a primary trommel screen, which sifts the materials that come out of the digesters down to a 1-inch diameter. In this way, items like recyclable cans and plastics are separated.
After larger items are filtered out, remaining organics are laid out in windrows—long rows of compost pictured at left. Compost in the windrows will be turned twice a day over a period of about five weeks.
Leonard holds finely sifted compost after it’s passed through a final trommel screen, which sifts down the compost to particles not larger than a quarter-inch in diameter. The sifting process helps to separate glass from the organic material. That glass can be recycled later. One of the biggest challenges the Sevier Solid Waste Composting Facility faces today is managing the moisture in the area of the windrows: it needs to be moist enough to keep the compost breaking down, but dry enough so that glass can be better separated from the compost. The better it separates, the more can be recycled.
Though cardboard can break down into compost, Sevier Solid Waste asks customers to separate it, since it has more value when sold for recycling. It can be sold at about $100 to $125 per ton. Sevier County has plenty of cardboard waste, too, because of the many restaurants catering to the county’s large tourism industry.
After about 40 days, what was once considered trash has become finely sifted, nutrient-rich compost. “Sixty percent of everything that comes in goes out as compost … and is used on farms, goes back to the earth,” explains Leonard, who is pictured holding the final product here. An added bonus: individuals can come and pick up bags of compost for free.
“That’s one way the citizens can see that we can make something useful out of this waste,” says Larry Waters, Sevier County mayor.
Erin L. McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in education, environment, cultural issues, and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @ErinLMcCoy.
The author is associate director at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
In June 2014, in a much awaited decision, New York’s Court of Appeals delivered a blow to oil and gas corporations while giving a much needed lift to communities facing fracking.
The court, which is the highest in the state, held that towns in New York can use local zoning laws to ban oil and gas extraction. The ruling has been widely celebrated among environmentalists and communities, and those involved are to be commended. This case proves that our communities are capable of collective mobilization, and that their actions can change the way that judicial institutions interpret and apply the law.The court’s decision had almost nothing to do with the rights of people or communities to collectively say “no” to oil and gas extraction.
Yet the victory is likely to be a temporary one because the towns’ power over zoning can be taken away by the state or further limited by the “rights” of oil and gas corporations. The fragile nature of the win in New York state demonstrates the need for a legal foundation that’s based in community rights—such that communities have local, democratic, self-governing authority to decide what happens in their own communities—authority that cannot be stripped away by hostile state legislatures or overridden by corporations claiming that their rights trump those of communities.
There is a growing movement for local self-government building across the country, as communities in different states wrestle with the same problem facing those in New York—that is, a structure of law in which state governments, the federal government, and corporations can override local decision-making no matter the environmental or economic impacts.
Increasingly, communities are no longer willing to accept this. In some places, they are beginning to enact local Community Bills of Rights, laws that secure the right to democratic, local self-governance.What happened in New York
The two towns that were the defendants in these cases—Dryden and Middlefield—are located in the Marcellus Shale region, where a massive underground deposit of shale rock reaches from New York state to West Virginia. Increasingly, gas corporations conduct hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to access the region’s shale gas—or what has been deemed “natural gas.”
Communities throughout the Marcellus and across the country are rising in opposition to fracking, concerned about environmental and other impacts. Each frack well—of which there are thousands across the Marcellus—uses millions of gallons of fresh water, which are combined with sand and chemicals to fracture the underground rock and release the gas.
The process produces millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater, which corporations increasingly dispose of by injecting it into high-pressure underground wells. Both fracking and wastewater injection wells have been linked to earthquakes in Ohio and other states.
In addition, although many claim that shale gas is a cleaner fuel than coal or oil, research has found that the fracking process is a major contributor to global warming.
As fracking spread in New York, the town boards of both Dryden and Middlefield researched the practice and its impacts. Both determined that oil and gas extraction were incompatible with their rural character and would damage the health, safety, and welfare of residents and the natural environment.
The town boards each amended their land use zoning laws to prohibit oil and gas extraction. And both towns were immediately sued.
The gas corporations bringing the lawsuits argued that a state law called the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law preempted communities from regulating oil and gas activities. The cases made their way through the lower courts and were ultimately considered together by the state’s high court.The cases prove that our communities' actions can change the way that judicial institutions interpret and apply the law.
The Court of Appeals ruled for the towns, affirming that they have the authority to use their zoning powers to prohibit oil and gas extraction. In its decision, the court cited the state’s Town Law, which established the authority of towns to pass zoning laws to foster “the health, safety or general welfare” of the community. The court went on to cite the law’s declaration that the regulation of land use is “(a)mong the most significant powers and duties granted … to a town government.”
The court found that the towns were acting lawfully in prohibiting extraction through their zoning ordinances. “Dryden and Middlefield engaged in a reasonable exercise of their zoning authority,” it explained, “when they adopted local laws clarifying that oil and gas extraction and production were not permissible uses in any zoning districts.”
Much celebration has followed, and rightfully so. Elected officials in the towns of Dryden and Middlefield are especially deserving of praise because they stood firm in the face of corporate lawsuits. Also to be celebrated are the efforts of the Community Environmental Defense Council (no relation to my employer, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund)—a small public-interest law firm that pioneered the legal strategy of using local zoning laws to protect New York communities from fracking and other extractive processes.
Did the court’s decision rest on the right to self-government?
For all the celebration, we must understand that this victory in New York is not secure. As the court made clear, the state legislature in Albany could pass a new law tomorrow that eliminates the authority of communities to use their zoning powers to prohibit fracking. Thus the court’s decision did not recognize that communities have the “right” to ban fracking.The power of municipalities to legislate is also limited by the “rights” of private corporations.
Yet there has been a lot of talk about “rights” in the ensuing discussion. For example, the Center for Effective Government wrote that the ruling “upholds local communities’ rights to govern land use and protect citizens from the public health risks associated with fracking.”
Unfortunately, this is not the case. The court’s decision had almost nothing to do with the rights of people or communities to collectively say “no” to oil and gas extraction. Instead, it focused entirely on whether the towns themselves, as municipalities created by the state, had the power to use zoning ordinances to ban the use of land for oil and gas extraction.
A municipality’s power to legislate is different than the people’s right to govern. Power is delegated and can be stripped away. Rights are inalienable and thus are not subject to the political whims of the dominant political party or the majority on a court.
As a wholly owned subsidiary of state government—or, as the court put it, as a “creature” of the state—a municipality’s decision-making and legislative powers can be changed or removed at the whim of the state legislature. If the legislature decided tomorrow to prohibit towns from using zoning ordinances to ban fracking, nothing could stop it from doing so. In the words of the court, “There is no dispute that the State Legislature has the right [to override local oil and gas laws] if it chooses to exercise it.”
Examples of this abound. In Pennsylvania, when municipalities began banning corporate factory farms more than 10 years ago, the state legislature proceeded to empower the state Attorney General to sue them on behalf of agribusiness corporations. In doing so, the state followed the lead of New York’s legislature, which has had a similar law in place for decades. In Oregon and other states, legislatures have prohibited municipalities from banning genetically modified organisms. In Colorado, the legislature has banned the use of any municipal ordinances —including zoning ordinances—from prohibiting oil and gas extraction.
The power of municipalities to legislate is also limited by the “rights” of private corporations. Because corporations have been recognized as having the same constitutional rights as persons, towns and villages cannot adopt laws that violate the personhood rights of corporations. This is the status of the law in New York and across the United States.
Even the power of the federal government is limited by those so-called rights, as evidenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, which gutted campaign finance laws as a violation of corporate rights of free speech. The Supreme Court further affirmed the status of private corporations as legal persons in the recent Hobby Lobby decision, determining that not only can corporations have religious beliefs, but that those beliefs can be used to insulate them from certain federal laws.
In much the same way, the power of towns to ban fracking is limited by the “right” of oil and gas corporations to engage in commerce (that is, to conduct extractive activities and sell the extracted materials) and to have communities pay corporations for the loss of oil and gas resources if local laws prevent such extraction.
Community rights and the courts
The court, in deciding the Dryden and Middlefield cases, faced potentially conflicting state laws—one that delegated zoning power to communities so they could preserve their small-town character, and another that preempted local regulation of oil and gas operations.In places that have Community Bills of Rights in place, no new fracking has occurred.
The court found that the language of the state’s oil and gas law only limited the power of towns to regulate how oil and gas extraction occurs, rather than where in the town it occurs. Since the where in these towns had rapidly become nowhere as they enacted zoning ordinances prohibiting extraction, the court needed to determine which state law trumped which.
This is where we begin to understand the power of collective action and how it can drive fundamental shifts in our legal structure. Courts and judges are not neutral arbiters of printed law, but can be placed into situations where they are forced to interpret the law differently from what it says.
Bending the law, of course, is what corporations have been doing for more than a hundred years, defining themselves as “persons” with the same constitutional rights as real, breathing people.
Though it happens more rarely, political movements have also forced the courts to bend the law. During the Civil Rights movement, the fear of uprisings in the streets forced the Supreme Court to rule that private corporations accepting public benefits could be held liable for violating the rights of African-Americans under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
The power of the people when they join together to advance civil and political rights is so strong that—even when communities use their state-delegated powers for something other than their intended use—courts will bend the laws, where they can, helping maintain the illusion that “we the people” have the right to self-government. How far judges will bend in the future is directly related to how forcibly people seek to redeem this country’s core promises about the right of self-government.
That’s the real meaning of the Dryden and Middlefield cases. They provide some proof that our communities are capable of collective mobilization, and that these actions can change the way that judicial institutions interpret and apply the law.
Planting our feet
Not only is constant vigilance necessary to ensure that the gains won in New York state do not erode, but the people in New York and other states must continue to seize the offensive.
That may mean doing as other communities have done across the United States—moving beyond zoning ordinances to adopt Community Bills of Rights. These local laws codify the civil rights of people to clean water and a healthy environment. They elevate the civil rights of community members above the rights claimed by corporations that seek to operate in their towns. Further, they require that all state laws and regulations be interpreted within the framework of these local bills of rights.If we don’t move forward in solidarity, we can easily be picked off one by one.
Thus, these laws necessarily challenge the authority of state government, as well as private corporations, to force fracking and other harmful practices into communities by prohibiting corporations and state government from conducting or permitting activities that may override any of these rights.
In enacting local bills of rights, communities are walking in the footsteps of both past and current people’s movements—from the abolitionists and the suffragists to today’s campaigns for marijuana legalization and gay rights—all of which recognized that we must challenge the law in order to change it, driving change upward from the grassroots to the state and federal levels.
Communities from Pennsylvania to Colorado have now enacted Community Bills of Rights. These local laws ban fracking and frack wastewater injection wells, along with state permitting of frack wells and corporate fracking activities that would violate the local bills of rights. In communities that have these laws in place, no new fracking has occurred.
Building on this work, communities in these and other states are joining together to amend their state constitutions. Colorado is the first state in which a constitutional amendment has been proposed that would recognize the right to local self-government. The amendment would empower communities to prohibit activities—such as oil and gas extraction—that would violate their rights to health, safety, and welfare.
If we do not take the offense, as is happening in Colorado and other states, New York’s municipal zoning bans will inevitably go to the chopping block where countless other ordinances across the U.S. have been sent to die. They will become a chit for political factions within the state legislature to trade and sell, likely leading to approval of bills aimed at patching up the preemption loophole that Dryden and Middlefield found—in other words, restoring the right of corporations to force fracking into communities.
The federal government may also take up the charge—driving federal legislation that would remove energy extraction from local authority.
If we want to secure community control, we must plant our feet not on the shifting sands of state-bestowed municipal power, but on the people’s inherent, constitutional, collective right to govern the places where they live. Doing so will not only make all of our efforts stronger, but will also allow those working against fracking to join hands with those working against GMOs, sludge dumping, factory farms, and a slew of other issues whose resolution is dependent on whether or not we govern our own communities.
If we don’t move forward in solidarity, we can easily be picked off one by one. We’ll have to resign ourselves to being controlled by state governments who are, in turn, controlled by the very corporations we seek to restrain.
The people’s movement toward economic and environmental sustainability has begun. Let’s make sure that it’s built on a foundation that can’t be pulled out from underneath us.
Mari Margil wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mari is associate director at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
Iceland is the Serengeti for seabirds. But nests have gone empty recently, with scientists reporting sobering descriptions of chick die-offs and colonies abandoned. The leading culprit: Profound changes in the world's oceans. Part of an ongoing series.
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An outbreak along California’s Central Coast of algae-produced biotoxins that attack animals' brains also poses a grave risk to humans.
As monarch butterfly populations dwindle to unprecedented low levels, activists say the insects need protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive. The widespread use of pesticides and genetically modified crops are the biggest threats to the butterflies.
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Chinese police have seized over 30,000 tons of tainted chicken feet, common on restaurant menus in China, in the latest food scandal to hit the country.
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The Obama administration is working to forge a sweeping international climate change agreement to compel nations to cut their planet-warming fossil fuel emissions, but without ratification from Congress.