Charleston County’s All-In-One Recycling program, which allows people to place all of their recyclables in one large blue roll cart instead of separating them, has been wildly popular, and is one of the bright spots of county government. The program has more than doubled the amount of recyclables people bring to the curb every other week, likely because they have been able to leave the sorting to the employees at the Romney Street recycling center.
The single-stream model represents the direction recycling management is headed throughout most of the country. But it has some downsides.
Here’s more about what’s happening locally, and how Charleston County is responding to the situation.
Question: What are the downsides to using the 95-gallon carts instead of separating recyclables into smaller bins?
Answer: With the additional paper, cardboard, cans, bottles and glass comes more items that can’t be recycled, such as garden hoses, children’s plastic Big Wheels and wire clothes hangers. And worse, it also brings more sticky, smelly trash into the mix, which contaminates the recyclables and reduces their value or makes them unsalable.
That’s especially important now because the cyclical market for recycled materials is at low point, driving up the cost of processing and increasing the demand for cleaner, higher-quality materials.
Q: Does the county make a profit from recycling?
A: No. In the 2014 fiscal year, the county brought in $1.3 million from the sale of recyclables. But the program cost taxpayers about $8 million. But even though recycling doesn’t make money, it helps lower the cost of the county’s solid-waste program because it reduces the amount of trash. Handling garbage is more expensive than processing recyclables.
Recycling never has been profitable or free in Charleston County, and industry professionals don’t expect it to be any time soon.
Q: How much of what is collected at the curb is recycled and sold, and what happens to the rest of it?
A: The county has had a contract to process recyclables with recycling giant Sonoco for the past 18 months.
In fiscal year 2014, during which the company processed the county’s recyclables for only a portion of the year, the county brought 18,281 tons of material to the center, and the company was able to sell 16,348 tons of it. That means 11 percent was either inappropriate material, damaged or simply unsalable. In fiscal year 2015, which ended June 30, the county and other clients brought 49,382 tons to the recycling center. Sonoco sold 39,806 tons, which means 21 percent was not sold.
Colleen Condon, chairwoman of County Council’s Solid Waste and Recycling Committee, said the material that wasn’t sold likely went to a landfill.
But Sonoco representatives refused to answer questions for this report. The county’s contract with Sonoco expires at the end of the month, and both parties agreed not to renew it.
Mitch Kessler, the county’s solid waste consultant said nationally between 10 and 40 percent of material collected at recycling centers is taken to landfills.
Condon said one of the biggest problems driving up the percentage of material that wasn’t sold has been with glass. It is heavy, so it makes up a large portion of the recycling stream, which is measured by weight. And there are few markets for it now. It also breaks and then can contaminate other recyclables. Some glass has been taken to the landfill and used for the required daily cover — material that keeps trash contained.
With all recyclable material, Condon said, cost is the bottom line. “If it’s more expensive to process than to take it to the landfill, it goes to the landfill.”
Q: Has Sonoco been taking clean materials to a landfill because company representatives didn’t think they could get enough money for them?
A: Sonoco representatives wouldn’t respond to questions for this report, and they are the only people who can answer that question. The composition of the 21 percent of materials that weren’t sold, and what happened to them, remains unclear.
Q: Should I continue to recycle glass?
A: Yes. Markets are cyclical and more markets for glass might open up, Condon said. Also, the county is exploring other uses for glass, such as using it as bedding for roads and landscaping material.
Q: Should we go back to the system of separating paper from other materials in smaller blue bins?
A: No. Condon said the single-stream program brings in so much more high-quality material that it is worth the time and money it takes to sort what is not usable.
Q: Is there hope things can improve?
A: Yes. County officials say they soon will design and begin building a new, modern recycling center on the Palmetto Commerce Parkway in North Charleston. The facility will have state-of-the-art equipment, which can better process materials so they are cleaner and fewer items are damaged. The new building will take at least 18 months to complete.
Kessler said he thinks that when the new facility is complete, the county will be able to recycle about 90 percent of the material collected.
Q: What is the county doing to educate people about what is and isn’t recyclable?
A: The county includes that information in its biannual newsletter as well as the department’s website and Facebook page. Also, graphics molded into the top of the lid of the recycling cart indicate what is accepted.
Q: What’s next for processing recycling?
A: Charleston County officials continue to work on a plan to ship recyclables to a facility in Horry County for processing after the contract with Sonoco ends.
The Horry County Solid Waste Authority last week gave its staff approval to negotiate a contract with Charleston County. The authority runs a recycling center that isn’t running at capacity, so taking in Charleston County’s recycling could boost its bottom line.
Condon said the contract isn’t quite complete but should be soon. Horry County Council will hear a presentation on the plan Thursday, she said.
The county needs to do something with its recyclables until it builds and opens the new recycling center. Taking the material to Horry County means Charleston likely won’t bring in any revenue, and likely will incur a cost, over the next 18 months.
The county needs another place to take recyclables for now because the aging Romney Street recycling center has been running three shifts a day for months and can no longer handle the volume of material it receives.
Charleston County will continue to pick up recyclables. It will then bring them to a transfer station where they will be loaded into trucks and taken to Horry County.
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich