Could your re­cy­cling be headed for a land­fill?

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY STEVE HAR­RI­SON shar­ri­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Last month, the city of Lin­col­nton near Char­lotte stopped its re­cy­cling pro­gram, and res­i­dents be­gan throw­ing their glass, plas­tic bot­tles and card­board into their garbage.

The city’s re­cy­cling con­trac­tor, Sonoco, could no longer find a home for the reusable waste — a prob­lem seen na­tion­wide, and in Char­lotte, be­cause the mar­ket for re­cy­clables has col­lapsed.

At Meck­len­burg County’s re­cy­cling fa­cil­ity off North Gra- ham Street, the sit­u­a­tion is not as dire, though of­fi­cials said the eco­nom­ics of re­cy­cling are “bro­ken.”

The county and its con­trac­tor, Repub­lic Ser­vices, some­times give away bales of plas­tic and mixed pa­per or even pay coun­tries to take them.

Repub­lic said Char­lotte’s re­cy­clables aren’t end­ing up in a dump, even though some bun­dles are, for now, worth­less. But the county’s solid waste di­rec­tor said he is con­cerned that some emerg­ing coun­tries like Viet­nam or In­dia may be putting some of Meck­len­burg’s re­cy­clables in land­fills.

“I have no guar­an­tee what some­one will do with it once they get it,” said Jeff Smith­berger, the county’s solid waste di­rec­tor. “Where it goes is a bit out of our con­trol some­times. If it stays in this coun­try, we know it will be taken care of. When it goes to a dif­fer­ent coun­try, they aren’t as en­vi­ron­men­tally safe. Whether they re­cy­cle it or land­fill it or burn it, we don’t know.”

A com­bi­na­tion of home­own­ers pro­duc­ing more re­cy­cling that’s “con­tam­i­nated” with trash, along with China’s re­cent re­fusal to ac­cept it, has led to a cri­sis in the re­cy­cling in­dus­try, ex­perts say.

“The model is bro­ken,” said Drew Isen­hour, an area pres­i­dent for Repub­lic Ser­vices, which has a con­tract to han­dle Meck­len­burg’s re­cy­clables. “It can be fixed. But it’s bro­ken.”

The county es­ti­mates that re­cy­cling a ton of ma­te­rial now costs twice as much as dump­ing


it in a land­fill. Char­lotte and other cities and towns say that re­cy­cling is worth it be­cause they be­lieve it’s the best thing for the en­vi­ron­ment and that res­i­dents have come to ex­pect it. They ar­gue that it’s more sus­tain­able to turn plas­tic bot­tles into fur­ni­ture or old card­board boxes into new ones.

Glo­ria Mella of South­Park said she is cau­tious to put only re­cy­clables in her green roll­out bin.

“Maybe peo­ple need to be re-ed­u­cated about what they can re­cy­cle and what they can’t,” she said.

She said the pos­si­bil­ity of her re­cy­cling not be­ing reused is dis­tress­ing.


At the county’s Ma­te­ri­als Re­cov­ery Fa­cil­ity, mas­sive ma­chin­ery sorts re­cy­clables: glass in one pile, cans in an­other, card­board in an­other place.

In ad­di­tion, county em­ploy­ees stand along­side con­veyer belts, look­ing to pull out con­tam­i­nants with their hands. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of pieces of plas­tic, pa­per and glass rum­ble past.

With so much plas­tic in the re­cy­cling, the men are con­stantly pulling out bags and wrap­ping — but other pieces of plas­tic move past them on the con­veyer belt. Their job is next to im­pos­si­ble, like drain­ing a lake with a teacup.

Since the city of Char­lotte and the county switched from the small red bins to the large green roll­out bins eight years ago, the amount of garbage mixed with re­cy­clables has in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly.

Ex­perts say many peo­ple are “as­pi­ra­tional” or “wish­ful” re­cy­clers, mean­ing they in­clude things that seem like they should be re­cy­clable but aren’t: plas­tic bags from stores, shred­ded pa­per, scrap metal, medicine bot­tles, win­dow panes.

The county also finds plenty of reg­u­lar trash in their re­cy­cling carts as well, such as dirty di­a­pers.

The county once sorted 35 tons an hour. That’s fallen to 25 tons be­cause of con­tam­i­nants.

“Amer­i­cans want to re­cy­cle,” said David Bi­der­man, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Solid Waste As­so­ci­a­tion of North Amer­ica. “But they aren’t very good at it.”

The county’s ma­chines have trou­ble dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween plas­tic and pa­per, so the bales of mixed pa­per pro­duced by the county and Repub­lic are full of plas­tic bags.

“Our ma­chines don’t know what to do with it,” Smith­berger said. “Plas­tic bags are ev­ery­where. They are the bane of our ex­is­tence.”

China has his­tor­i­cally been the world’s big­gest im­porter of re­cy­clables.

But China has be­come less and less tol­er­ant of bales with con­tam­i­nants and be­gan de­mand­ing higher-qual­ity bales as part of its “Green Fence” ini­tia­tive. The coun­try ear­lier this year started its “Na­tional Sword” pol­icy, which ended al­most all of its re­cy­cling im­ports.

Repub­lic Ser­vices’ con­tract with Meck­len­burg County re­quires that it re­move every ton of re­cy­cling from the site that it brings in. The con­tract does not re­quire that the ma­te­rial be re­cy­cled. That has never been an is­sue, be­cause there has al­ways been a fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive for com­pa­nies to re­cy­cle, since both the county and its con­trac­tor made money by sell­ing crushed bales of cans, plas­tic and card­board.

But that has changed. “We were get­ting $120 a ton (for re­cy­clables) and now we are get­ting noth­ing or pay­ing to get rid of it,” Isen­hour said. “I’ve never seen any­thing like it.”

Isen­hour said Repub­lic is scram­bling to keep mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties na­tion­wide from not scrap­ping their re­cy­cling pro­grams al­to­gether. Some cities and towns have al­ready aban­doned re­cy­cling glass, since it’s ex­pen­sive and of­ten con­tam­i­nated. (Think peanut but­ter in­side jars.)

“Get­ting rid of the re­cy­clable pro­gram is not the best way to deal with this,” he said. “We are try­ing to be sus­tain­able.”

Repub­lic said it wasn’t com­pletely re­liant on China. Some card­board is sent to a Sonoco fa­cil­ity in Hartsville, S.C. Strate­gic Ma­te­ri­als in Wil­son, N.C., also buys glass.

Repub­lic’s re­port to Meck­len­burg County said its old news­pa­per is go­ing to Asia, though the re­port wasn’t spe­cific. The same is true for plas­tics, which are also bound for Asia.

Isen­hour said Repub­lic is find­ing new mar­kets in Viet­nam, In­dia and In­done­sia, even if it’s hav­ing to pay them to take bales. He said the com­pany works to en­sure those coun­tries are re­cy­cling their prod­ucts, not just plac­ing all or some of the bales in land­fills.

“If it’s go­ing to an end mar­ket, we val­i­date that it’s be­ing reused and not be­ing land­filled,” he said. “We are not land­fill­ing any­thing in my area. We val­i­date that.”

Bi­der­man said some cities and towns in the Pa­cific North­west and New Eng­land have dumped their re­cy­clables in land­fills be­cause they couldn’t find any­one to take them. But he said he be­lieves de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are re­cy­cling what they re­ceive.

“The cost of la­bor in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries al­lows them to re­cy­cle,” he said.

Laura Hen­ne­mann is a vice pres­i­dent at Strate­gic Ma­te­ri­als, which re­cy­cles glass in Wil­son. She ex­pects other coun­tries will fol­low China’s lead.

“It will be a short while be­fore those other coun­tries will say no, too,” she said. “It’s been con­ve­nient to ex­port it. We have to find a so­lu­tion as a coun­try for re­cy­cling as a whole.”


Meck­len­burg’s con­tract with Repub­lic ends in 2019.

Smith­berger said the next re­cy­cling con­tract will al­most cer­tainly cost tax­pay­ers more.

To put a ton of trash in the county’s land­fill costs $33, he said. Two years ago, it cost $45 a ton to re­cy­cle, but the county and Repub­lic split the prof­its from sell­ing it.

The cost per ton is now about $ 70, Smith­berger said. He said he wouldn’t be sur­prised if it reaches $90 a ton.

Shan­non Binns is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit Sus­tain Char­lotte. He said this down mar­ket is a “long over­due wake-up call that we can’t con­sume large quan­ti­ties of sin­gle-use, dis­pos­able ma­te­ri­als just be­cause they are re­cy­clable.”

He said the county and city need to iden­tify the top five sources of con­tam­i­na­tion and cre­ate an ed­u­ca­tional cam­paign to help peo­ple un­der­stand what is re­cy­clable and what isn’t.

Binns said the county could ask restau­rants to stop giv­ing peo­ple sin­gleuse dis­pos­able bags and other items and could of­fer a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram for restau­rants that elim­i­nate cer­tain sin­gleuse plas­tics.

Smith­berger said the county can charge home­own­ers more, and he can hire more peo­ple to sift through the waste, pulling out plas­tic bags and other non-re­cy­clables.

But he said that will com­pete with other pri­or­i­ties: Schools. Af­ford­able Hous­ing. Pub­lic health.

“There is hope for re­cy­cling,” he said. “But it won’t be easy.”


STEVE HAR­RI­SON shar­ri­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Work­ers sort re­cy­cling at the Meck­len­burg County Ma­te­rial Re­cov­ery Fa­cil­ity off North Gra­ham Street. Some of the ma­te­rial is now worth­less.

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