Ron Brinson often fields questions about recycling when he's making his Saturday morning rounds through the neighborhoods he represents on North Charleston City Council.
"They know that most, if not all, of this stuff ends up in a landfill, but for so many of our neighbors, recycling is instinctive," Brinson said. "It's a great 'habit' and we were all sorry North Charleston's pickups in Dorchester County had to be suspended."
The end of recycling in Brinson's council district wasn't unusual. In fact, it represents the current reality for the waste industry: It's tough to find anyone to buy salvaged paper, glass and plastic these days.
So, nearly three years later, about 7,000 North Charleston households that once put their blue bins by the curb each week now send all of their recycling to the dump along with their garbage.
"When you don’t have an aftermarket it has to go to the landfill," said Brian Risinger, director of corporate communications for Hartsville-based packaging giant Sonoco Products, one of the nation's top recyclers.
China used to be one of the world's biggest buyers. But after years of accepting pretty much anything sent their way, the country in 2018 cracked down on contamination in the stream of imported recyclables, accepting only the purest paper, plastic and other products. That led to a 54 percent drop in recycled paper exports from the Port of Charleston to China last year.
There's still plenty of uses for recycled materials in the United States, and demand is expected to grow, but much of what's collected still finds its way into landfills.
"It all comes down to whether you have someone to sell this product to where you can break even or make a profit," said Sonoco's Risinger.
Sonoco collects 2.8 million tons of cardboard and plastic each year for products such as boxes for e-commerce firms and those clear plastic clamshells that hold blueberries and other produce in supermarkets.
Still, there are challenges, especially when material is coming from curbside recycling programs.
"It's messy, much more labor-intensive and much harder on our equipment," Risinger said. "Stuff gets in there and tears the equipment up, so then you have downtime and extra expense."
JW Aluminum in Goose Creek is a recycling success story.
The manufacturer uses 70 percent recycled aluminum to make products for the construction and HVAC industries. A $300 million expansion under way at the plant will increase capacity by 175 million pounds of rolled aluminum per year, while adding 50 jobs.
"When the expansion is complete, we’ll be using 100 percent recycled aluminum at that facility," said spokeswoman Nicole Snyder.
But finding recyclables that are clean enough to use isn't easy. About 25 percent of the things people put in blue recycle bins — greasy pizza boxes or plastic yogurt cups, for example — are too contaminated for re-use, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association.
A story this month in The Atlantic magazine illustrates the recycling dilemma: Mixed paper needs to be about 99 percent clean to find a market, yet municipalities can struggle to reach 90 percent purity from curbside recycling programs.
And virgin material — like those plastic resin pellets the Port of Charleston sends to foreign countries for use in hundreds of plastic products — is often cheaper than recyclables.
Recycled plastic "costs pennies more than new plastic, and those pennies add up when you're manufacturing millions of items," Alana Semuels wrote in The Atlantic.
There are stockpiles of some commodities sitting unused because there isn't enough profit in converting them to new products. Prices for aluminum cans, for example, have plunged over the past year because they aren't as versatile as other scrap aluminum.
Another problem: As the return on recyclable materials diminishes, those who collect and sort it are charging more for the service. Charleston County had been paying more than $100,000 a month to an Horry County waste facility to sort paper, glass and other recyclables, but the contract wasn't renewed because of its costs.
Brian Gilhuly is confident there's enough usable recyclables hidden in everyday household garbage for his RePower South waste processing facility in Berkeley County to turn a profit.
"Berkeley County has no recycling program, so all of those recyclables are in the waste stream already — they're just going to the landfill now," said Gilhuly, RePower's CEO and co-founder.
Gilhuly said contamination in traditional, blue-bin recycling programs is similar to what's found in general household trash, so there isn't much difference between the two when it comes to finding usable material.
RePower used a $43.9 million tax-exempt bond issued through the state's Jobs and Economic Development Authority to build the site at Berkeley County's landfill, where trash will be sorted for paper, metal and plastic that's clean enough to sell to third parties. Some of the material will be turned into fuel pellets and sold to a Spartanburg company owned by Justin Converse, RePower's co-founder and board chairman. The rest will be returned to the landfill.
RePower hopes recyclables extracted from the trash will amount to 58,350 tons by the fifth year of operations — nearly one-third of the trash RePower takes in, or roughly 2,400 cargo containers full.
It will be crucial for RePower to hit those numbers because its business plan calls for recyclables to account for 60 percent of revenues.
The company also might find other buyers for its fuel pellets. Dominion Energy, the company buying South Carolina Electric & Gas, is testing the pellets to see if they can be used as an energy source.
Other municipalities are monitoring RePower's progress as a possible solution to their own recycling needs. For many politicians, and their constituents, recycling is a point of pride — a feel-good activity that's a plus for the environment and should be promoted, even if it doesn't make money.
Brinson, the city councilman, said he's talked with North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey about how to bring recycling back to his district.
"This has not progressed beyond the idea/concept/possibility process," he said, "but we're looking for any possible options, and Mayor Summey is keen on regional solutions."