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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Mecklenburg eyes changes to boost recycling, fight climate change

A worker removes a plastic bag from cardboard at the Mecklenburg County Material Recovery Facility, where recyclables are sorted.
David Boraks
A worker removes a plastic bag from cardboard at the Mecklenburg County Material Recovery Facility, where recyclables are sorted.

Deliveries to Mecklenburg County's recycling sorting center are expected to decline this year for at least the fourth year in a row. County officials and recycling advocates are pushing for improvements, to solve not just our waste problem but also to fight climate change.

Mecklenburg County's materials recovery facility, or MRF for short, is a massive 2½-acre building off Graham Street in north Charlotte where mixed recyclables are sorted into glass, cardboard, paper and plastic. County Solid Waste Director Jeff Smithberger led a tour recently for county commissioners and members of the county's Waste Management Advisory Board.

Mecklenburg County solid waste director Jeff Smithberger leads a tour of the county's Material Recovery Facility, or MRF.
David Boraks
Mecklenburg County Solid Waste Director Jeff Smithberger leads a tour of the county's Material Recovery Facility, or MRF.

"These are some of the bunkers where material gets stored," Smithberger explained, as the group walked up and down stairs and across gantries in the midst of whirring machines.

"There's a conveyor belt in the bottom of it. So when it comes time to process materials, these materials will get put on the conveyor belt and then get bailed up," he said.

Smithberger said between 370 and 425 tons of recyclables pass through the center every day, from around the county.

But that's only about one-third of all the trash collected by the county, the city of Charlotte and the county's six towns. It includes recyclables from Centeral Piedmont Community College and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and some small businesses, but not large businesses.

Our recycling is contaminated with trash 

And some of that material shouldn't be here, Smithberger said, pointing to another machine.

Trucks bring recycling to the Material Recovery Facility from the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the county's six towns. A conveyor belt removes trash to be sent to the landfill.
David Boraks
Trucks bring recycling to the Material Recovery Facility from the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the county's six towns. A conveyor belt removes trash to be sent to the landfill.

"Everything that's on this conveyor is going to be going out as trash. See where we pulled out a lot of bags, a lot of things that shouldn't be in recycling? This will go up here, cross back under, go into a truck that goes to the landfill," he said.

It's called contamination and it's one of two main problems that county officials are trying to solve. The other is just getting residents to recycle in the first place.

These days, nearly one-quarter of material that comes to the MRF is trash — plastic bags, clothing, food containers and other types of plastic that aren't on the county's very short list of acceptable items. For every ton that comes in here, the county pays $90 to Republic Services, which operates the MRF. And then the county pays again for Republic to haul non-recyclable materials to the landfill.

County commissioner Elaine Powell
Mecklenburg County
County Commissioner Elaine Powell

County Commissioner Elaine Powell chairs the commission's Environmental Stewardship Committee. She said candidly of the system: "Needs improvement. We've dedicated a lot of resources to making the infrastructure that we need to recycle. But we need people to be conscientious about recycling, and recycle things that are recyclable."

"There's no individual accountability in recycling right now," said Amy Aussieker, executive director of the sustainability group Envision Charlotte. "So if you put all your stuff in the bin, and it's contaminated … nobody knows it's you that did it. If we could have individual accountability, it would change everything.".

Aussieker manages the city of Charlotte's Innovation Barn, in the Belmont neighborhood east of uptown. It's an incubator for what's called the "circular economy" — systems and processes to reuse recyclable materials. She said it's a model for what cities like Charlotte might do.

Mecklenburg is average, but officials want improvements 

Recycling one-third of all waste puts the county at about the national average. But it falls short of the EPA's national goal of 50%. The EPA set that goal because municipal landfills are the nation's third-largest source of human-generated emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

That's also why Powell wants to get recycling numbers up.

"We have a very good infrastructure, but we're working on improving that," Powell said.
"And then we're working on improving education to residents in Mecklenburg County. And then there are multiple areas where we can improve and, and have higher expectations."

The county produces videos, has a recycling website — WipeOutWaste.com — and a recycling telephone information line. But contamination remains a major issue.

Smithberger told the county commission's environment committee last month that the county's own research shows customers are still confused.

"They desire a system that can be easily understood. That's the biggest thing that people gave us feedback on," he said.

Not all recyclables can be recycled here

The problem, he says, is that the county can't recycle everything that's recyclable. Yes, it takes glass, cardboard, paper (including junk mail), metal cans, cartons and juice boxes, and plastic containers — with necks only.

But many other recyclables aren't on the county list, even though they may bear the recycling symbol. That includes shredded paper, plastic takeout food containers and scrap metal.

That's partly because of the limitations of the sorting equipment. Smithberger said the county will spend $10 million later this year on new equipment that will allow it to accept more kinds of recyclables.

Jenna Jambeck
University of Georgia
Jenna Jambeck

But it's not just a technology problem. The recycling industry has been in turmoil for years because of changing markets for different kinds of recyclables, said Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Georgia.

"'Technically recyclable' and 'feasible to recycle' are two different things," Jambeck said.

Big market changes 

Recycling costs have risen and the value of some recyclables has fallen or disappeared entirely. Some communities have stopped recycling glass altogether. Mecklenburg County accepts it but has to pay to truck it to the nearest glass processor in Wilson, 3½ hours away. And some isn't recycled at all. Instead, it's ground to sand and spread on the county's Foxhole landfill.

Jambeck said a major market disruption came in 2018, when China cut off imports of recyclables and other solid waste that was mostly going into landfills.

"The U.S. was exporting 50% of its plastic scrap to China for recycling," Jambeck said. "And when that import ban basically took place, we didn't have the same kind of ability to do secondary sorts on the material and the markets were not the same."

Mecklenburg County's sorting center has seen the fallout. As markets dried up or became too expensive, the county whittled down the types of recyclables accepted. Deliveries of recyclables to the MRF have declined since at least 2019, according to county figures. Tonnage was down 2.4% in 2021 and is projected to fall another 3.6% this year.

Smithberger says the number also is falling because fewer people are working from home as the pandemic eases.

The wider debate about recycling 

Even as county officials look for ways to improve recycling here, experts are debating the effectiveness of the current system nationwide. Greg Monty, who runs a technology research center at North Carolina A&T State University, blames rising costs.

"I think recycling is not a big bang for the buck anymore. And I think that's part of the reason why it's falling in interest," he said.

Monty notes that only a small percentage of plastic bottles wind up being recycled. And he said: "Even the recycling process is a problem. Because (with) the reuse of plastics, you're really downgrading the plastic every time you recycle it. So it gets harder and harder to make the quality of plastic that you need."

Envision Charlotte's Amy Aussieker said we need to rethink the entire recycling system.

"Given the current way recycling is done, I think it's really hard to move that needle," she said. "I think there's going to have to be a radical change to how we recycle to really move that number. And we don't have the mechanism right now to fix it."

One mechanism could be broader adoption of the circularity ideas being studied at the Innovation Barn, she said.

Demonstration projects there include crushing glass that can be used in concrete and gardening, recycling plastic for building materials, and composting food waste. Fly larvae from the composter are food for a small fish farm, which provides nutrient-rich water for a hydroponic farming operation. The hydroponics lab grows lettuce that's sold to local restaurants.

Ultimately, Aussieker says, we've got to be smarter, consume less and reuse more.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.