Recycling: saving the environment or boosting the economy? Part II

by Kelly Corbett
Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Staff photo by Allison Potter 

Single-stream recyclables, a mix of different materials, await shipment at the Waste Management facility on River Road on Tuesday, April 16.

The following is the second of a two-part series following recyclables from the bin and beyond.

Amounts and locations of recyclables in the United States and abroad are difficult to track. 

With technological advances, materials are becoming easier to weigh and follow, but the amount of recyclables actually used domestically is widely unknown.

During his topics and issues in sustainability course, Roger Shew, lecturer in the department of geography and geology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, shows students slides depicting the recycling process for various materials.

Shew also references the amounts in tons and value shipped through the United States Global Trade as charted in the March 2012 Municipal Solid Waste Management Magazine.

The article states that approximately half of U.S. recycled materials are exported, with China as the leading destination among 158 countries with $8.5 billion of scrap materials in 2010. Scrap includes iron and steel, paper, aluminum, plastic bottles and more. Canada, South Korea, Turkey and Taiwan also top the list of countries that import U.S. recyclables.

“The numbers I see from different sources seem to be in the same range,” Shew said during a phone interview on April 16. 

He has concentrated his research on the amounts of recycling processed at UNCW and in New Hanover County.

“The problem for us, though, it then goes to Jacksonville, goes to Fayetteville, goes to Raleigh, even South Carolina for some of the things,” Shew said. “You don’t know what they do with it really after it gets there.”

In 2010, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted more than 85 million tons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Municipal Solid Waste.

Shew and his wife now only have one paper shopping bag of trash each week, because they compost food materials and recycle everything that can be recycled.

“I think the main thing is people should just take advantage of the ease of recycling,” Shew said. “… When you look at the fact that we recycle less than 50 percent, actually about 39 percent of our stuff, there’s an issue. … Maybe one of these days we will get to zero waste. Who knows?”

From May 2012 to March 2013, the city of Wilmington’s recycling program increased from 14,000 to 21,000 residents. The 2012-13 recycling budget totaled $809,000, paid for through trash pick-up customer fees.

City workers report little trash mixed in with the recycling, which is picked up from a 95-gallon blue cart bi-weekly.

“The carts and the new trucks that we’re getting, we have technology that we’ve not had in the past to give us a much better idea of how much folks are recycling in different parts of town,” said Malissa Talbert, city communications manager by phone on April 10. “What we hope, in the future when we have that data, we will be able to target specific areas that may not participate as much as others and encourage recycling in that fashion.”

The single-stream recyclables also known as “fully commingled” or “single-sort” from the blue carts are taken to the Waste Management facility, located at 3920 River Road, where they are baled and shipped to the Raleigh Waste Management Recycling facility.

Jerry Murrell, Waste Management septic operations manager, has his business cards printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper.

“Eighty-thousand pounds of single stream usually goes out of here per day,” Murrell said during an April 12 interview.

The city trucks typically weigh 4 to 5 tons when they drive into the facility.

“You’ve got a certain amount of contamination and although most everything has a recycle number on it, that doesn’t mean there’s a good market value for everything,” Murrell said. “… There’s a good market for the soda bottles and the milk jugs. There’s a good market for newspaper.” 

But he said, they do no brokering there.

The River Road facility also processes recycling from Kure Beach and some homeowners associations. Carolina Beach recycling is picked up and taken to Waste Industries, located at 3618 U.S. Hwy. 421 N., as commingled recycling before being transported to Sonoco Recycling in Jacksonville.

The bulk of recycling from the town of Wrightsville Beach comes from the drop-off site, featuring seven 40-cubic feet recycling dumpsters, located next to Town Hall.

“It’s probably 99 percent drop off,” said Mike Vukelich, Wrightsville Beach public works director, on April 8.

The town also has a franchise agreement with Green Coast Recycling, allowing residents to contract for curbside recycling for $9.75 per month. Those recyclables are kept separate throughout the recycling process, which is handled 100 percent locally at the mill off U.S. Hwy. 421 N., near the county facility. Each material is then shipped in 20-ton increments to end users.

“I don’t know that they’ve ever had over 100 customers ever,” Vukelich said.

Once full, the mixed plastic, glass, aluminum cans, cardboard boxes, newspapers and mixed paper from the recycling dumpsters are transported to the New Hanover County recycling facility, located at 3002 U.S. 421 N. 

“Plastics are disposed of as one unit,” Vukelich said. “They’re not separated.”

The county processes and sells the pre-sorted recycling free of charge to the town.

In 2012, 733 tons were recycled from Wrightsville Beach. From January to March 2013, about 176 tons were recycled.

Vukelich said he believes the majority of residents recycle, but figures are not available. But most of the recyclables at the Wrightsville Beach drop-off site come from non-residents. 

Only 24.4 percent of respondents (131 of 537) to the 2010 Wrightsville Beach litter and recycling survey were Wrightsville Beach residents. The majority of respondents, 53.4 percent, were New Hanover County residents, and the others were local college students, visitors from North Carolina and visitors from outside North Carolina.

The facility is open 24 hours, seven days per week. Almost one 40-hour per week full-time employee is dedicated to the town’s recycling, including hauling the recyclables and repairing and repainting the dumpsters.

“We take pride in that recycling drop-off facility,” Vukelich said. “… We have some people that drop garbage off in some of them and batteries, but by and large they’re pretty good about it.”

The content of the town’s aluminum can dumpster has never been sold due to theft. Currently it waits for the aluminum can dumpster to be filled to see what additional revenue it would bring to the town. But, as with the county drop-off sites, there are problems with people stealing the cans from unmanned sites and selling them.

Cash-redeemable aluminum cans are one aspect of recycling that has not changed. Lynn Bestul looks back 20 years to one of his employees who actually started the county’s recycling program in 1993. On April 15, Bestul, the county solid waste planner, said, “They would take 95-gallon carts in a truck and drive to a location and sit there for a day and people could bring the stuff, and they would bring those back.”


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