Charleston County’s recycling and solid waste programs stand at a crossroads, and their future will involve new processing systems and technology to improve efficiency, decrease the amount of garbage sent to landfills and be more environmentally sound.

Solid waste experts agree that new, green technology for processing garbage and recycling looks promising and is evolving rapidly. But they also agree that the challenge lies in putting those technologies to use on a large scale.

Before 2009, Charleston County burned most of its garbage in an incinerator in North Charleston and dumped the rest in the Bees Ferry Landfill. After the county closed the incinerator, it set a goal to increase recycling from 10 to 40 percent of the stream of solid waste. It also launched a single-stream recycling program, which allows residents to mix all of their recyclables in one large bin instead of separating them.

Most experts say single-stream recycling is the first step in any environmentally and financially sound solid waste program.

The county is poised to build a new recycling center in the next 18 months. It plans to build a facility that can handle the increased materials brought in by the single-stream program, as well as accommodate emerging technologies as they become viable.

Some technologies the county and the company that operates its recycling program are considering include:

sorting garbage to pull out discarded recyclables.

anaerobic digestion, which converts organic waste such as food to methane, then to energy.

making pellets from some of its garbage, which could be burned in coal plants.

The county isn’t currently considering other new technologies, which consist largely of systems that convert waste to energy.

Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy for the National Waste and Recycling Association, said, “Many technologies are being explored, but getting them out of the laboratory to a commercial scale is tough. It’s the large scale that’s the problem.”

Bleeding edge of technology

County Council last week voted to offer a 10-year contract to Sonoco Recycling to run the county’s recycling operations.

Company president Ray Howard said he thinks the recycling operations likely should grow in phases. First the county should get the single-stream program running efficiently, he said. Then, it could expand to sort trash.

Pulling recyclables out of trash is a cutting-edge step, he said. There currently is only one facility in the country doing that. It’s located in San Jose, Calif.

Howard also said he would consider using anaerobic digestion with some of the remaining garbage, a process he thinks is viable.

He’s open to new technologies, he said. But he always asks those promoting them if they have been successful on a commercial scale. “You don’t want to take public money and put it on the bleeding edge of technology,” he said.

Repower South

A new company called Repower South has approached the county about a technology it developed to make pellets from a portion of the waste stream that can be burned in coal plants. Company leaders said they would pay for the county’s new recycling facility, and run it, if the county would agree to letting them produce the pellets.

Several council members objected to the plan because the technology hasn’t been used on a large scale.

Jim Bohlig, the company’s chief development officer, said he developed the pellet technology after working in the solid waste field for more than 30 years. SCANA has agreed to purchase the pellets.

Bohlig said he would work with the county on its single-stream program if the county wanted to continue that effort. But single-stream recycling isn’t efficient to collect, he said, because cities and counties have to run separate garbage and recycling trucks. And it’s difficult to get more than 60 percent of people to recycle, he said.

He thinks it’s more efficient if people are allowed to simply throw away all of their trash, like in the days before recycling. The trash then can be sorted at a facility and the “high-value” recyclables can be pulled out, he said. Then, the company can make pellets out of a portion of what’s left.

Pellet-making technology has been around for more than two decades, he said. Although his company hasn’t made the pellets on a large scale before, he’s certain it can work. “We’ve done the various pieces,” he said. “We just haven’t put it all in one place under one 20-year contract.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.