Recycling, the feel-good environmental activity, is up against harsh realities.
Greensboro is going to stop recycling residents’ glass bottles and jars because city officials determined it’s too expensive.
Wake Forest is telling its residents it’s going to stop emptying curbside recycling bins that have plastic bags or plastic wrap in them. In a change beginning this month, those recycling carts will stay full, with a tag attached telling why they weren’t emptied.
But in Craven County, a vote to end curbside recycling drew a backlash and a partial reversal by county commissioners — showing how popular the service has become, even in communities that once were skeptical.
Separating garbage headed to the landfill from the used paper, glass and cans is routine in many households and businesses. But market pressures are driving up the costs. Recyclables are the raw material in a manufacturing chain that in the last few years has become very sensitive to contamination — the plastic bags, clothes and other items that don’t belong in recycling carts.
Reacting to the challenges, the state Department of Environmental Quality is reinforcing the importance of recycling — urging people to continue to do it because in-state companies depend on the materials left on curbs and drop-off stations. DEQ is increasing its efforts to help local governments educate residents on what to put in recycling carts and what to leave out.
“Manufacturers still need recyclable material and we want to make sure we continue to encourage North Carolinians to recycle and take advantage of their local community recycling programs,” Wendy Worley, chief of DEQ’s recycling materials and management section, said in an email.
Wake Forest and other cities use a customized website and app telling their residents what to put in their recycling carts and what to trash.
It was the high cost of handling glass for Greensboro’s processor that led to the city’s decision to tell residents to stop recycling it, Chris Marriott, deputy director of solid waste management, said in an email. It cost about as much to transport glass as the recycler paid for it, and that’s before the costs to separate glass from metal, paper and other materials is considered, he said.
Pieces of broken glass that can get stuck in other materials is also a problem, Marriott wrote, now that China has put new restrictions on what it will take.
“A couple of shards of glass in a paper bale can result in the entire bale being rejected or deemed no value,” he wrote.
China, once a major importer of American recyclables, has decided not to take as much, and the material the country accepts has to be much cleaner, The News & Observer has reported.
“There are definitely some challenges in the system right now,” said Scott Mouw, senior director of strategy and research with the Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit. In addition to the impact of China’s policy, there’s a glut of some material in U.S. markets, he said.
Processing plants have added staff to pick out items that don’t belong with recyclables.
The higher costs for recycling plants and lower prices for the materials they produce are reflected in increased costs to local governments and households.
Towns around the country have decided to stop recycling, the New York Times has reported.
“The system of removing materials from our households, garbage or food waste or dirty diapers, that stuff never leaves our households for free,” Mouw said.
Benefits of recycling
“At this point in time, it costs more to process,” Mouw said. “Then that leads us to think why we value recycling. We value it because it is a powerful preventer of greenhouse gases,” and a way for citizens to help the environment, he said.
Recycling usually uses less energy than making products from raw materials, according to DEQ, and it also helps keeps some waste out of landfills where it would decompose and produce methane, a greenhouse gas.
Despite the market bumps, DEQ is supporting residents’ recycling habits. North Carolina is not as dependent as other states on overseas markets, Worley said in an interview. The state has 674 recycling businesses and 16,300 private sector jobs, according to a DEQ news release.
“Every worker and every business that employs those folks depend on the feed stock coming in the door,” Worley said.
Hard to kill
Even as cities and towns give increased costs the side-eye, it’s hard to kill curbside recycling.
Craven County commissioners voted earlier this spring to end curbside recycling when fees were going to double from $2.92 per month per household to $6 per month, County Manager Jack B. Veit III said in an interview.
After a public uproar, commissioners reversed the decision a few days later. Residents’ recycling won’t be picked up as often and the containers will be bigger, but the fee won’t go up as much.
One of the commissioners who changed his vote, Jason Jones, talked about the heated opposition to the county starting a recycling program more than 20 years ago that was part of broader changes in garbage disposal policies. Jones’ grandfather was a county commissioner at the time.
“Literally, folks came and threw trash into granddaddy’s front yard every day for several weeks,” Jones said in an interview. “People put nails in the driveway. There was such an outrage. People had never recycled before.”
This year, the outrage was over ending curbside recycling. Jones talked at the meeting about the hundreds of emails and calls he received, and thanked the people who didn’t cuss at him.
In the interview, Jones attributed the strong pro-recycling sentiment to people who have moved to New Bern from other parts of the country and expect to have recycling as a basic service.
“I was stunned by the response,” he said.
Residents told him “to cease the curbside recycling would cause a lot of folks to stop recycling,” Jones said. “They wanted to be environmentally friendly.”
Recycling has become a durable habit, Worley said.
“The citizens have come to expect that this is just a regular part of their utility,” she said. “It’s the single most direct act people can take to make an environmental difference.”
Things that should not go into the recycling cart
Tanglers that get caught in the recycling machinery: plastic bags, garden hoses, wire hangers. coaxial cables, Christmas lights.
Scrap steel, because it can damage the conveyer belt
Textiles, clothes and shoes
Lithium ion batteries, which can explode and cause fires