Despite obstacles, there’s no plan to scrap recycling

File/Brad Nettles/StaffWorkers at the Charleston County Recycling Center in 2014 remove items that the center cannot recycle, such as grocery store plastic bags, wire and steel cans as they enter the plant on Romney Street. The facility closed last summer.

It’s been more than six months since Charleston County and its recycling handler parted ways, but the effects still reverberate throughout the Lowcountry.

Recycling has become more difficult for many.

The county’s contract with Hartsville-based recycler Sonoco ended in July while the market for some recycled materials has fallen off. Both have caused Lowcountry officials to rethink their recycling programs and have forced residents to change their habits.

“Recycling is very challenging right now with the price of commodities,” said Dorchester County Public Works Director Jason Carraher.

Falling oil prices have cut into the economics of recycling, officials said. Cheap oil means that new plastic can cost less than plastic created from recycled materials, and in many cases, people are not willing to pay a higher price for eco-friendly plastic, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

The drop in profitability has caused counties and other local governments to scramble in the short run, but they all remain committed to maintaining — or increasing — recycling in the years to come.

With new facilities, new programs and new technologies on the horizon, the future of recycling looks bright, officials said.

“Recycling is the most popular program in the county,” said Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who chairs the solid waste committee. “We should continue the service, even in the lean years.”

Recycling has become a way of life for many South Carolinians since the passage of the state Solid Waste Policy and Management Act of 1991, which set waste reduction and recycling goals, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Since then the state’s recycling infrastructure has grown to 93 curbside programs, 580 recycling drop-off centers and 891 used-oil collection centers for do-it-yourself oil changers.

“Recycling is working in South Carolina,” said DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley. In 1993, South Carolinians recycled about 87,000 tons of material, but in 11 of the past 12 years, that number has increased to more than 1 million tons, he said.

But that’s only one measure of recycling’s importance.

During the last fiscal year, which ended in June, the amount of municipal solid waste tossed into South Carolina’s landfills dropped by 9,554 tons — or 0.3 percent — from the year before, according to DHEC figures.

Both Berkeley and Dorchester counties recently met the state’s goal of disposing less than 3.25 pounds of waste per person per day, with 2.47 pounds and 2.21 pounds, respectively. Charleston County, which has more visitors and students not counted in its population, tossed out 4.39 pounds per person per day.

And DHEC’s most recent recycling report notes the state is recycling more material than 15 years ago, while the tons of municipal solid waste headed to the landfill has remained flat, despite an increase in population.

The economics of recycling have always been complex, with local officials factoring in the cost of collecting and sorting it, what money they receive from selling it and the value of extending the life of their landfills.

Ultimately, however, recycling is like public transportation — a service that doesn’t cover the cost of providing it. A key recommendation in DHEC’s most recent report calls for ending the myths that recycled material has great value and that recycling can pay for itself by selling the glass, paper and aluminum collected.

“Recycling is not free. It never was,” the report said. “Residents must be made aware that they are paying for two basic solid-waste management options: disposal and recycling.”

While Charleston residents wouldn’t notice a change in their service, folks like Sandy Shuler of Summerville have had to make adjustments.

She’s gone from having recyclables picked up curbside to hauling crates of glass and plastic to drop-off sites.

“I just can’t bring myself to put (glass and cans) in my trash can,” she said. “We’ve been recycling for years, and it feels like a step backward to stop now.”

Shuler is in a better place than Jan McNeil, who discovered earlier this year the recyclables she rolled to the curb in front of her North Charleston home were being dumped into a local landfill.

McNeil and about 27,000 other folks who live in the Dorchester County portion of North Charleston learned in January they were “living a lie,” according to city Councilman Ron Brinson. For about five months, their recyclables were mixed with trash and sent to a landfill.

“It was going to the dump, but we didn’t want to interfere with the habit of doing it,” Brinson said.

The issue was resolved in mid-March, Brinson said. Residents now have curbside pickup of paper, metal and aluminum, but not glass or plastic.

“There’s just not a market for a lot of this stuff anymore,” Brinson said.

When Charleston County closed its recycling center after its contract with Sonoco ended in July, ripples were felt across the Lowcountry. The Romney Street Materials Recovery Facility also processed material from other local entities, including Dorchester County.

Charleston started trucking its recyclables to Horry County, but that arrangement wasn’t open to all of Sonoco’s former clients. The county plans to bring the material to that facility for about two years, until a new recycling center is built on Palmetto Commerce Parkway in North Charleston.

In November, Summerville contractor Waste Pro told residents it would no longer collect aluminum, plastic and glass because it was left without a processing center.

“I’ve been very disappointed that we haven’t been able to solve this,” Summerville Mayor Wiley Johnson said. “It is a situation that we are not willing to live with very long, but we have not yet been able to come up with a good solution.”

John Nail, site manager for Waste Pro, told Summerville Town Council in February that Waste Pro has been interested in building its own facility in Dorchester County but it would be “quite an undertaking,” an estimated $3.5 million investment.

In the meantime, the town still collects paper and cardboard, which is recycled at a North Charleston Sonoco site, but residents like Shuler who want to recycle other items must bring their glass, plastic and aluminum to one of Dorchester County’s convenience centers.

Those centers have undergone their own transformation, too. After the Charleston facility closed, Dorchester began sending its commingled recyclables to a Sonoco plant in Columbia.

Then, in January, the county closed the seven drop-off sites with the least traffic and redesigned five others to handle separated materials, which are sent to different places for recycling, Carraher said.

“We haven’t noticed a decrease in the usage since January,” Carraher said. “People are taking the extra step to sort their materials out. We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how smoothly it’s gone and how quickly people have taken to it.”

In addition, the county is actively pursuing a curbside handler, he said.

If all goes well, Charleston County’s new recycling center could open as early as the second quarter of 2017, Condon said.

When it does, the county will hire a private company to run it, just as it hired Sonoco to run the old center. The county will have some control because it will own the equipment and the building, she said. But it’s much more efficient to hire someone to run it that is in a better position to leverage the recycling markets.

And the county might continue to process Dorchester County’s or other group’s recyclables in the new facility, she said.

Berkeley County, which currently brings its materials to Sonoco’s North Charleston facility, has taken a different approach to recycling.

Jim Rozier, the county’s former supervisor, now works as a paid consultant for RePower South. He has helped the company and county strike a deal that would lead to a unique process for recycling — one that Rozier said wasn’t viable 25 years ago but can work now.

“Everybody that’s doing normal recycling is having a problem,” Rozier said. “Berkeley has decided to do what makes sense.”

Last year, the county — which doesn’t offer curbside pickup — inked a deal with RePower South to build a plant near the county landfill to convert some of the county’s trash into pellets that can be burned in coal plants.

Citing the unproven technology and cost, Charleston County rejected a pitch from RePower, Condon said.

RePower officials said their methods will dramatically increase the county’s recycling rate. The plant will pull out some recyclables to sell and use others to make the pellets.

RePower President Bob Shepard estimates that 20 percent of the trash can be recycled, 45 percent can be made into pellets and 35 percent will go to the landfill.

But there are still some obstacles to clear. Rozier said the plant is in the permitting process but could open by the middle of next year.

“Now they’ve shown that it works and actually produces what they say it will,” he said. “I think you’re going to see this process in a lot of places in the future.”

Diane Knich and Robert Behre contributed to this report.