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A look at the current state of recycling in Mecklenburg County

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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.

"I recycle because I care about our environment," said Kym Motley, who lives in First Ward. "I feel I am making a difference, but there is so much more to do. Now, I am focusing on minimizing the amount of stuff to recycle. For example, I use coffee mugs at work so I don't consume a paper or Styrofoam cup." She also said she's stopped buying disposable plastic water bottles and, instead, fills a reusable water bottle with filtered water.

Simple steps like that can greatly reduce the amount of waste sent to both FCR and our landfills. Terri Bennett, author of the local blog DoYourPart.com, said becoming a better recycler is all about setting up a system that works for you. In addition to placing recycling bins throughout her home, to make recycling as easy as possible for her family, she also finds ways to re-use materials. "Plastic and glass food containers with lids can be used again in place of plastic bags, wrap or aluminum foil," she said. And instead of reaching for paper towels, use kitchen towels or cloth napkins that can be washed and used again. She also does something she calls "pre-cycling." "This means," she said," choose products in recyclable packaging over non-recyclable packaging, and then make sure it gets recycled."

She makes a good point, since we do vote with our dollars, after all. When we buy recycled products, we effectively spur the market for those products, creating more demand, which raises the prices FCR can charge for those materials — and thus the amount of money that Mecklenburg County will ultimately receive as part of its revenue-sharing deal. In addition, when you recycle, you're helping them to fulfill the demand for those products.

Nevertheless, part of being a good recycler is also about knowing what you can't recycle and where you should recycle. Not every recyclable item should be tossed into your bin. For example, don't try to recycle your garden hose, which can get tangled in, and damage, the facility's equipment. Neither should you put batteries or any other type of scrap metal — other than steel or aluminum cans — into the bins. Those items are recyclable, but they should be collected and taken to one of the county's four facilities equipped to handle those materials. "Our program is for residential metals," says Gledhill, "it's not for your engine block." (Find the recycling center closest to you at WipeOutWaste.com.)

And those old appliances? Duffy suggests you donate them to Habitat for Humanity, where they are disassembled and sold for scrap metal. FCR doesn't want your plastic grocery bags, either. Those should be collected and returned to grocery stores that recycle them.

But the No. 1 tip Gledhill has for recyclers? Participate. "To those of you who don't," he said. "do." Recycling reduces the amount of money the county has to spend on waste management, can put some extra money into the budget and helps the environment to boot, since landfills not only gobble up valuable land but also emit methane gas, a major contributor to the greenhouse effect.

Another tip? Take the tops off any container that holds liquid. That will help prevent messes as trash trucks compact recyclables and in the MRF, ultimately saving them (and us) money. Perhaps the best tip of all, however, comes from Bennett, who said, "Leading by example is the best place to start." She suggests reminding your neighbors when to roll out their recycling bins, or even rolling it to the curb for them.

FCR is also educating the county's youngest citizens. Each year, an average of 9,000 area students visit the facility, where they learn about what is and isn't recyclable and even teach them how to create art projects from discarded items. But you don't have to be part of a school field trip to visit the MRF. Anyone can take a tour; just be sure to call ahead of time and set up an appointment.

In addition to being "excited" about increased recycling rates, FCR released some more big news last month. The division has been sold to a new parent company, Pegasus Capital Advisors, and its Amble Drive location will become the company's new headquarters, with Duffy the division's president and CEO. From there, he'll manage 18 locations in nine states, marketing more than 100 million tons of recyclables each year, nationwide.

Will this affect the firm's ability to serve Mecklenburg County? Absolutely not, said Gledhill, who said he's "highly pleased" with the company, calling its safety record "outstanding."

The facility is also actively pursuing an environmental certification, which the county insisted on as part of its renewed contract. This means a few changes, like using diesel fuel instead of gasoline in its on-site equipment. "To our knowledge," said Duffy, "we are the first recycling center in the country that has achieved that."

There's also another big deal on the horizon for FCR. They have partnered with the proposed ReVenture Park development, which will mean the creation of another, larger recycling facility for Amble Drive. There, should the county agree to a waste management deal with ReVenture, FCR will sort and sell recyclables for that company, as well as shred the remaining refuse into a fuel that will be gassified in the development's hybrid gassification-incinerator to generate electricity. That energy will be used to power the plant and the remainder will be sold to Duke Energy.

The county's Waste Management Advisory Board is currently debating whether to approve that deal, however, which has some citizens up in arms. (See the "Stop ReVenture Park" Facebook group.) But if the county decides to stick with its current waste management partner, Republic Services, expect business to continue as usual at the MRF.

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