Charleston County aims to reduce contaminants in recycling program

Charleston County’s recycling program allows residents to mix all of their recyclables, but not their trash, in one large rolling bin.

When a non-recyclable item ends up in a recycling bin, it’s technically considered a “contaminant.”

Andrew Quigley, Charleston County’s new environmental management director, prefers to call it “wishful recycling.”

“I think what we’re dealing with is a lot of material that people wish they could recycle. Therefore, we need to do a better job of telling people what we can recycle,” he said.

Take garden hoses, for instance. People might not like to think about a snaking piece of thick rubber ending up at the landfill, so they toss them in with the recycling instead of the trash.

Good intentions or not, contaminants are a costly problem for the county’s recycling program. A single garden hose is enough to shut down the processing plant in Horry County, where Charleston County’s recycling has been sent for the past year. The same can be said for wads of plastic bags, cables or pieces of scrap metal.

They jam the machine’s sprockets and cause it to seize up, like an overworked vacuum. It can take 30 minutes or more to get it back up and running, said Mike Bessant, director of recycling services for the Horry County Solid Waste Authority.

“When you’re processing about 15 tons an hour, and that happens two or three times a day, that’s 10 or 15 tons of material that we can’t process,” he said.

Plus, items like soiled diapers and batteries can ruin a load of otherwise useful recyclables.

Charleston County sends about 3,000 tons of recyclables every month to the processing plant in Conway. Quigley said there’s an expectation that about 15 percent of each ton will be contaminated, and the county has been slightly exceeding that recently.

He said the best way to reduce the amount of rejected waste is to continue educating residents about which items are allowed in the single-stream recycling bins.

“If that material isn’t in there, we don’t have to pay for it in the future,” he said.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail