Posted by: Banta | September 16, 2016

The place we call ‘away’


After multiple attempts to recycle leftover construction materials, we bit the bullet and took a truckload to the landfill—located nine miles north of downtown Asheville in the scenic community of Alexander, NC. If you’ve never visited a landfill, put it on your bucket list. In our throwaway culture, nothing screams “There’s-no-such-place-as-away!” quite like acres upon acres of trash—the detritus of our wasteful lives.

The winding road to the Buncombe County landfill meanders along the French Broad River, a favorite playground for kayakers and whitewater enthusiasts. We nearly missed the landfill turnoff because the elaborate stone pillars flanking the drive look more like the entrance to a pricey gated community than a county dump. Shade trees line the access road and purple martin birdhouses dot the grassy hillsides, adding to the illusion of a sprawling estate.

We weighed in and followed directions to the top of the hill. Here in the mountains of western North Carolina, long-range vistas capture our attention every day. But we did not expect the stunning 360-degree mountain view that greeted us at the crest of the landfill. Against a backdrop of piled-high trash, the beauty of the view felt cruelly out of place. We unloaded quickly, bracing against the stench of decay and wary of a suspicious squishiness underfoot.

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Surely, this is the Wasteland of which T.S. Eliot spoke: “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.”

Owned by the County Department of Solid Waste and opened in 1997, this particular landfill spans 128 acres and accepts more than 170,000 tons of solid waste per year. That’s a whole lotta trash. When the property reaches its ‘design capacity’ of 3.6 million tons, projected in 2020, this landfill will close and another will take its place. But where? We are fast running out of space.

A recent news report cited remediation plans to clean up a former Buncombe County landfill in Fairview, NC. Closed in 1976, forty years ago, the site continues to raise concern about contaminated water and soil. Four decades later.

Here’s the thing. Trash lasts so much longer than we think. Roughly speaking, a landfill is a depression in the earth that is lined with clay and thick plastic, rather like a large bathtub. (For scientific details on landfill construction, see Modern landfills try to control for off-gassing and liquid seepage, but leaks do happen. Soil and groundwater suffer as a result. Think about the French Broad River less than a mile away.

Our sobering field trip to the landfill underscored the worthy mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Those items we ‘forget’ to recycle take decades, even millennia, to break down in a landfill. A glass bottle? Maybe a million years. Those plastic bags? Perhaps 500+ years. Plastic soda bottles? About 500 years. Aluminum cans? Eighty to 200 years.

The EPA estimates that the bulk of our household garbage could be recycled or composted—paper, yard waste, plastics, food waste. Even hard-to-dispose-of paints and varnishes, old batteries and electronics have designated recycle days at the landfill and other local drop-off sites.

Simple choices make a difference—buy in bulk (no plastic packaging), go paperless, say ‘no’ to bottled water, opt for cloth napkins and diapers. If the kitchen trash can, or the bin behind the house were the last resort, rather than the mindless first choice, how might our consumer habits change? With a little time and effort, and some focused intention, we commit to recycle more and consume less. Won’t you join us?


  1. “The Place We Call Away” Well said. We have been on the recycle band wagon for decades. We’ve already joined you!

  2. Amen my friend! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

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