August 23, 2014

Barnett: Message in a bottle: Work together

With little notice, recycling has become a huge success in North Carolina. It saves local governments money, supports a new industry and helps the environment. It could be a guide to solving other common problems in a polarized era.

Businesses and environmentalists still struggle over the extent of regulation, but one front here has been an impressive concurrence and a spectacular success: recycling.

Recycling, you might wonder, is that even an issue anymore? No, and that’s the point. The broad acceptance of recycling is one of those stories that, as the famous editor and Goldsboro native Gene Roberts used to say, oozes rather than breaks. It happened slowly but profoundly, and it’s changing the state and the nation.

Those following the news in 1987 remember the barge loaded with 6 million pounds of New York garbage that got turned away from its destination in Morehead City and spent five months looking for a place that would accept it. In those days, landfills were polluting, overflowing and expensive. Private industry got into the lucrative business of taking municipal and construction waste and burying it in landfills where the detritus would take centuries to decompose.

But in 2014, in this time of polarized politics and gridlocked Congress, recycling shines as a communitarian success. Environmentalists applaud it. Business profits from it. And the Earth benefits from it.

To get a sense of how broadly and swiftly recycling has triumphed, I visited Scott Mouw, a 22-year employee of the state Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. Mouw oversees recycling in North Carolina, and he’s a natural evangelist for the cause. His office is in DENR’s building in Green Square near the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh. The building, full of natural light and recycled material, has a platinum LEED rating for energy efficiency. Its offices brim with products made from recycled materials such as detergent bottles and clothing made from plastic bottles.

There is now a voracious appetite among manufacturers for many things we used to throw out. “They are now commodities, not trash,” Mouw says.

China, for one, can’t get enough plastic bottles, newspapers, glass and cans to feed its manufacturing maul. Recycling companies in the United States are recycling virtually everything, including tires, clothes dryers, carpets, asphalt shingles, computers, drywall, used cooking oil and even food waste.

Some factories, including several in North Carolina, have gotten to the point that the last thing they threw out was their trash Dumpster. Everything that comes through gets recycled. The official term is “Zero waste to landfill.”

These policies along with the willingness of North Carolinians to recycle – there are now 315 curbside pickup programs in the state – are dialing back the predictions of overflowing landfills and a society swamped by its waste. Four years ago, the state’s landfill capacity was projected to be exhausted in 20 years. With help from more recycling, the landfill capacity now extends to 32 years. Annual waste disposed per capita in North Carolina was 1.36 tons in 2006. It was cut to 0.94 tons in 2013, about a 40 percent drop.

Recycling isn’t only cutting waste. It’s fueling state manufacturers and creating jobs. One reason is that North Carolina was one of only four states to start a Recycling Business Assistance Center that has spurred the growth of businesses that use increasingly efficient ways of sorting waste material or use the material to make new products.

“Recycling is one of the few industries that grew during the recession,” Mouw says. Jobs related to recycling grew by 12 percent from 2010 to 2013. Over the same period, recycling firms around the state made approximately $80 million in capital investments

And there’s still a lot more material to convert. More than 800,000 tons of household material that could be recycled end up in a landfill. Food waste, which can be used to make compost and methane fuel, is barely being tapped. There are 1.2 million tons of food waste in the waste stream. Currently only about 40,000 tons are being diverted.

But progress is coming. A private company wants to locate in Charlotte an anaerobic digester that will convert food waste to methane to make electricity that will be sold to Duke Energy. Walmart diverts most of its food waste. Supermarket chains like Publix and Kroger are starting to follow suit.

Mouw says the boom in recycling is “one of the most successful behavior change movements of the last 25 years.” But the transformation is far from complete. About 35 percent of the waste stream is being recycled. He thinks 50 to 60 percent is attainable.

“We made a very substantial leap,” he says. “There is reason to celebrate that success but only temporarily because there is still a lot of material that can be recovered, and industry is waiting for it.”

The success of recycling in North Carolina has happened with little public notice, but it is encouraging. If the attitude of “no waste to landfill” had been around last century, much land could have remained unspoiled. The coal ash that Duke Energy dumped into unlined pits, for instance, would have instead gone into cinder blocks, as it could once a cleanup plan is established.

Starting with bottles and cans and moving on to virtually every material form, we’ve learned to recycle and profit from it. That’s a rare success that connects business and environmental interests and one in which millions of North Carolinians play a personal role.

That common effort for a broad improvement is a wonderful model. We should recycle it.

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