How did Charleston County really get into the recycling business?

In 2008, County Council was asked to renew the contract for Montenay to operate the incinerator. The cost to the county budget was about $45 a ton to use the incinerator. A public outcry regarding the environmental and neighborhood effects resulted and led to my introduction of the Charleston Green for Green Plan, which was adopted in 2008. The county committed to be more environmentally sensitive and saving money while doing so.

We hired consultant Mitch Kessler after doing a request for proposals, and he advised on us the various technologies being used and tried in the country. We stopped using the incinerator in December 2009. We created a goal of recycling 40 percent of all trash.

County Attorney Joe Dawson and Mitch Kessler's leadership has brought about tremendous cost savings and efficiencies in the landfill, so we are now paying $20 dollars a ton for the cost of running a landfill, but the overall cost is affected tremendously by the huge success environmentally and financially of the all-in-one recycling.

Charleston County was visionary in the 1980s and '90s when we started curbside recycling. Now such programs are in many areas around the country, but success rates vary tremendously. County Council committed to a new recycling plan and facility and the equipment to serve all residents.

We have taken a series of votes since 2010 to further refine this plan. We started rolling out all-in-one recycling carts in 2011. So far, 95,000 of approximately 120,000 homes have received them. Charleston County has spent $12 million on roll carts, trucks, and processing equipment. Expanding to all plastics, all paper, putting all items together, and offering roll carts has increased our recycling about three-fold, and we now recycle about 29 percent of all materials.

We have reached a max of what we can process at the current recycling facility and need a new facility. By expanding to all households and expanding to businesses, I believe we can reach the 40 percent goal within a year after opening a new facility. During this same time period, Charleston County's environmental management budget has saved over $50 million since 2010 by closing the incinerator, and by offering compost and food compost programs, improved customer service and efficiencies at our landfill.

We should have completed the roll out to all curbside homes in Charleston County no later than 2013 but the decision where to locate the new recycling facility has been delayed over two years already for political and other reasons. Now as we're about to close on a location and have a vendor ready to help Charleston County reach our recycling goals, some members of council have refused to vote for the facility operator and instead want to go explore a concept of trying to turn trash into energy again.

Expanded recycling is one of the most popular programs that Charleston County has done during my 10 years on County Council. Nevertheless, Council member Vic Rawl has requested that we allow one vendor who has lobbied some council members to look at another burning/heat conversion technology.

It's a great unknown whether this technology can be viable. What I do know is that burning and similar heat-related waste-to-energy processes are much more expensive than the cost of land-filling trash in Charleston, Dorchester or other parts of South Carolina. If it can't make financial sense in New York or California where the land costs are so much higher, then it certainly can't be a financial success in South Carolina.

Can trash be sorted to pull out the valuable recyclables and sell them? Of course. Can trash be burned and create heat or steam? Of course. Charleston County already did that with the incinerator, but at a high cost to taxpayers.

In 1985, the movie "Back to the Future" predicted we would be using banana peels and other trash to fuel cars by 2015. Can that be done today? Well, cooking oil and other items are being used in some experimental ways, but these experiments cost way more the cost of gasoline.

I am hopeful we will see realistic costs for such dreams during my lifetime and I support testing, but Charleston County taxpayers should not get caught up in expensive futuristic schemes when recycling is the most cost-effective and environmentally appropriate way to address our trash.

If you believe our recycling progress is the right plan for Charleston County, please come to the meeting and public hearing at 5 p.m. today - or email or call - to let council members know that.

Colleen Condon represents District 7 on Charleston County Council.