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Charlotte Region's Trash Piling Up During Pandemic

Mattress being crushed
Michael Falero
An employee of the Hickory Grove Recycling Center crushes a pile of discarded mattresses.

As people have spent more time at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, what they throw into the trash has also changed. Those changes have challenged county waste departments in North Carolina.

The Hickory Grove Recycling Center in east Charlotte was loud and busy on a recent Wednesday morning. It’s easy to get overwhelmed there.

A bunch of heavy-duty equipment was picking up from a giant pile of debris and logs, putting it into what looked like a grinder. Then that grinder sifted through it all, cutting it down and spitting it out like a giant wood chipper, essentially mulching it.

Standing nearby was Jeff Smithberger, Mecklenburg County’s solid waste director. He said during the stay-at-home order this spring, recycling centers saw lines of people here to drop off their trash and debris, even on weekdays when these sites wouldn’t normally be busy.

Part of the reason was the city of Charlotte stopped collecting yard waste at the curb. But people were bringing other things, too.

dumpsters at Hickory Grove Recycling Center
Michael Falero
A "box" at the Hickory Grove Recycling Center for tires and mattresses. This row of dumpster boxes are categorized by item type.

"Mattresses and televisions and old computers, a lot of stay-at-home items, home-comfort items, things that, while they were staying at home, that they wanted to upgrade," Smithberger said.

Smithberger said his department saw an increase in these bulk items being tossed. He heard from residents that they were spending their stimulus checks upgrading these items. When his department surveyed people asking them why they were showing up in droves, they gave an interesting answer.

"It was one of the places that people were allowed to go," Smithberger said. "They were allowed to go to a grocery store, they were allowed to go to a doctor’s office, and they were allowed to take their trash to a facility like this because we were deemed an essential service. So, it gave people that opportunity to get out of the house."

Officials at waste departments in the counties surrounding Charlotte have seen similar upticks since the pandemic started in March. Cabarrus County officials saw a significant jump in the number of appliances dropped off. That contributed to a rise in residential waste in the first three months of the pandemic. Iredell County saw something similar, along with a drop in office waste. Trash from their construction sites also dipped in April and May but recovered by July.

Ron Gilkerson, Union County’s director of solid waste, said he’s seen largely the same trends. More bulk waste, more residential waste, and less office and construction waste. He said the shifts make sense given the stay-at-home orders people were under.

"People are cleaning out their barns and their attics that they had normally not gotten to or not had the opportunity to clean out," Gilkerson said.

Gilkerson said the changes to Union County’s waste have been challenging for his staff because while there’s more trash, he didn't have more trucks

"A 1,400- (to) 1,500-ton increase means we’re getting you know, 100, 120 trucks a month more than you know, our normal rate," Gilkerson said.

In Gastonia, solid waste director DeeDee Gillis had a particular problem.

garbage truck crushes yard waste
Michael Falero
A city of Gastonia waste truck crushes yard waste.

"The yard waste," Gillis said. "What we have noticed, just like I’m sure if you were in any retail store such as Lowes or Home Depot, or your local landscaping, they were packed during April, May, June."

Solid waste managers said they’re used to planning in years. Now, the pandemic is forcing them to plan a few months at a time. One big challenge: They have to guess if trash will continue to increase in the coming months. Smithberger said the increases in trash with the pandemic are different from natural disasters, which often lead to temporary spikes in trash and debris.

"Things are always occurring, the only difference is with a flood or a fire, it’s over with quickly," Smithberger said. "The pandemic has lasted since March, and it’s not like anybody’s had a fire or a flood that’s lasted since March."

Managers across the region said their departments try to be flexible. But they’re facing challenges and unknowns like everyone else. They’re grappling with a lack of equipment to meet the rising demand and an uncertainty of whether a new lockdown will bring them even more trash.

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Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.