A look at the current state of recycling in Mecklenburg County | News Feature | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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A look at the current state of recycling in Mecklenburg County



Charlotte's recycling practices have evolved quite a bit since the first bins were distributed in the 1980s — and so, too, has citizen involvement. Today, the county works with Casella Waste Systems Inc., which operates under the name FCR Recycling in Mecklenburg County. The firm runs the county's refurbished, multi-million dollar Metrolina Recycling Facility, or MRF, and has since 1995.

FCR manages recycling for us, out of the county-owned MRF, sorting and selling the materials and even turning discarded newspapers into cellulose fiber insulation the same day it's received, delivering it to home improvement stores across the region. But don't think FCR gets to keep all of the profits. Neither should you assume that your tax dollars are funding the business.

While the county did put up the cash for the facility's upgrade, what they get in exchange is quite valuable. In addition to handling recycling for the county and employing nearly 50 people, FCR divides its excess revenue; it's a 75-25 split, with the lion's share going not to the company, but to the county.

"We are highly pleased with FCR's operation of that facility," said Bruce Gledhill, Mecklenburg's solid waste management director, who renewed the county's 10-year contract with the company in 2009. Even though local municipalities pay about $43 for each ton of recyclable material they dispose of at the MRF, the county receives enough money through the revenue-sharing agreement to more than cover operating costs. In fact, while they created the budget with the expectation of receiving $1.5 million from FCR this year, "We've just about hit that already" this year," he said. And, as the market continues to improve for recyclable materials, that number could rise. Effectively, that means that when citizens recycle, the county benefits many times over.

It wasn't long ago that waste collectors had to stand on the street and sort through citizen's recycling by hand, digging recyclables out of the curbside bins and stuffing them into trucks built with separate compartments for each type of material — metal, plastic and paper. Depending on what was put into the bins, any one of those could fill faster than the others, forcing the trucks to return to the recycling center for a drop-off. But today, with the new roll-out canisters and an $8 million dollar renovation at the MRF, there is no curbside sorting, and the trucks are able to collect much more material. That means fewer trips back to the recycling center, a lower gas bill and a more efficient system. Additionally, people are able to recycle more materials than ever before.

According to Sean Duffy, president of FCR, in the first three months after the revamp, recycling rates spiked 30 percent compared to the year before. But it's difficult to gauge exactly how much recyclable waste is being kept out of area landfills because of the way our waste is measured.

Ultimately, the county looks at how much waste we're sending to landfills, where our garbage is essentially buried, according to Gledhill. For the fiscal year 1999, Mecklenburg County citizens and businesses sent 1.96 tons of waste to the landfill each week. Whereas, for the fiscal year 2010 — which ended in June 30 as the new recycling system was gearing up — we only sent 1.17 tons of waste to the dump; that's impressive given the influx of new residents to the area. Moreover, says Gledhill, in the first six months of this fiscal year, it appears that we're going to send even less to the dump than last year.

That increase is due, in part, to the facility's ability to recycle more types of materials than we could in the past. For instance, a year ago, the facility could only accept No. 1 and 2 plastics. Today, with optical sort technology, the facility is able to accept No. 3, 4 and 5, too. (Go ahead and trash No. 6 plastics, like rotisserie chicken containers, though.) So, instead of simply recycling plastic milk jugs, we're now able to recycle flowerpots, shampoo and yogurt containers, and even wax-coated drink containers with plastic screw-on tops.

"Right now," Gledhill said, "it's a fair statement to say recycling is up 15 percent — year-to-year — as a result of single-stream recycling. We're proud of that."

But, he cautioned, it's impossible to figure how economic factors have affected our trashy habits. That's because as the economy tanked, people spent less money. When people are buying fewer consumer products, they tend to generate less trash. That's not difficult to imagine given the vast amount of packaging that accompanies many new products.

It should also be noted that citizens seem to feel more responsible for recycling these days. In fact, we tried and tried to find non-recyclers to comment for this story — but none surfaced. Does that mean that everyone's recycling? No. It could mean, however, that people don't want to be known for not participating.

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