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Rising cost to update Mecklenburg recycling center means higher fees

022122 Meck Recycling Center.JPG
David Boraks
A worker sorts cardboard by hand at Mecklenburg County's north Charlotte recycling center. The county plans a $26 million upgrade, with new technology and equipment.

Costs for a planned upgrade of Mecklenburg County's north Charlotte recycling center have more than doubled over the past year. And that could mean higher than expected increases in trash hauling fees for the next four years,

County solid waste director Jeff Smithberger told county commissioners Tuesday night that inflation and higher interest rates are to blame. But he said work at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) off North Graham Street is badly needed.

"Our equipment is old. It's failing. It's over 15 years old, and it's operated for the past eight years two shifts a day, six days a week. And we had to migrate to a two-shift-a-day operation to accommodate the growth in materials that we receive from our growing population," Smithberger said.

Residential trash fees are expected to rise $5 a year through 2027, beginning next year. That would increase the annual trash fee from the current $39.50 to $59.50. The previous plan had proposed just a $2 annual increase for the next four years.

The facility is owned by Mecklenburg County and operated under contract by Republic Services. The MRF handles recyclables from the city of Charlotte and the county's suburban towns. It also processes recycling for surrounding communities when there is capacity, Smithberger said.

But the MRF can't handle many types of recyclables because of the sorting equipment's limitations. Smithberger said the upgrade will include new technology and machinery that will expand what the county can recycle.

The facility takes glass, cardboard, junk mail and paper, metal cans, cartons and juice boxes, and plastic containers — with necks only. But other recyclables aren't on the list, even though they may bear recycling symbols. That includes shredded paper, plastic takeout food containers and scrap metal.

On Tuesday, County Commissioners authorized the county manager to sign a $25.7 million contract to begin the work — more than twice the previous estimate. The commission also approved borrowing $12 million from the county's landfill closure fund to help pay for the upgrade and related work.

The trash fee increase will show up in the county manager's budget next spring, which commissioners would have to approve by June 30.

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.