Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
When Jerry Slaughter had to separate recyclables for pick-up at his home in Asheville, he used three blue recycling bins for mixed paper and three green bins for other materials. Most residences had only one green and one blue bin.
Now Slaughter’s neighborhood in Oteen off Tunnel Road is part of the city’s pilot single-stream recycling program which allows materials to be mixed. Each household has a 95-gallon cart for all items that is picked up biweekly. Slaughter’s family fills a cart and sometimes shares a neighbor’s for overflow.
“A lot of people don’t like separating. Single-stream recycling is easier. I see more participation,” said Slaughter, a plumber and longtime recycler, whose family of four usually generates just one bag of garbage a week.
Slaughter’s enthusiasm is partly why Buncombe County had the third-highest per capita recycling recovery rate of North Carolina’s 100 counties in fiscal year 2009-2010. Other counties in Western North Carolina have among the state’s lowest recovery rates, according to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). But as the recycling industry grows in the state and nationally, Western North Carolina reflects some emerging trends.
WNC ‘home to a lot of progressive, high-performing programs’
With strong worldwide demand for recyclable commodities, incentive programs, new markets for recycled goods, growth in recycling-related businesses and landfill disposal bans, recycling rates generally are increasing in Western North Carolina and statewide. Government-run community programs, such as curbside and drop-off services, now are the backbone of recycling in the state.
North Carolina’s recycling push began about 20 years ago. Since then, recycling has evolved from mostly an environmental concern about reducing landfill waste to also become important in economic development.
“As a marketplace right now, recyclables are facing unprecedented strength,” said Scott Mouw, the state’s recycling director at the DENR. “The materials are in demand, and their value is high. We have a nice, really long track record of businesses making investments and creating jobs in North Carolina around recycling.”
“The western part of the state is home to a lot of progressive, high-performing programs,” Mouw said. “They’re offering a good service and making an effort to educate citizens.”
Macon and Swain counties usually rank in the top 10 of North Carolina’s counties in per capita recycling recovery rates. Last year, Swain ranked fifth and Macon ranked eighth. The rates exclude tires, yard waste and such items as hazardous materials.
“What sets some communities apart from others is the sense of continual improvement. They’re always trying to do more,” Mouw said.
With an estimated 80 percent recycling participation rate among households, Asheville still is trying to do more.
“Asheville has one of the better curbside recycling programs of communities their size in the state,” Mouw said. Others recognize that, too. The Carolina Recycling Association gave Asheville the Best Local Government Recycling Program award this year.
Recycling incentives and pay-offs
Making it easier to recycle can increase participation. Asheville’s single-stream program, which will be implemented citywide this year, is an example. The city also plans to accept more plastic materials and other items. Downtown parks have recycling bins, and there’s a recycling container outside the Public Works Building downtown.
Asheville residents soon may have another incentive. Through Recyclebank of New York, the City Council is considering a rewards program to give residents discounts at retail stores for materials they recycle curbside.
“We have residents who are very committed to recycling. It’s a culture here,” said Wendy Simmons, solid waste manager with Asheville’s Public Works Department. “We’re really trying to push our program further and be a leader in recycling. We believe the single-stream and rewards programs will push us to that edge.”
“We need to create the understanding that the more we recycle, the cost to the city goes down,” she said. “We’ll be good stewards of the resources we have but also be more efficient in use of tax dollars.”
The city pays more than $1 million annually in landfill tipping fees and about $900,000 for collection of recyclables.
Macon County officials also highlight cost savings to the county to promote recycling. The county operates 11 centers where residents take recyclables and trash.
“We’ve done a very intensive public education program to incentivize the public by demonstrating that recycling helps prevent us from having to raise fees and add tax costs,” county recycling coordinator Joel Ostroff said. The annual user fee per household to deposit trash and recyclables increased last year — for the first time in 15 years, from $60 to $72.
Ostroff estimates that 38 percent of Macon households recycle. “A lot of people are from the era when they threw everything over the bank into the river,” he said.
Unlike many localities, Macon profits from recycling by searching for new markets to sell items to and adding materials to recycle. The county collects wine corks, rechargeable batteries, printer cartridges and mixed, rigid plastics (plastics with recycling numbers 1 through 7), from margarine containers to car fenders.
“Recyclables are a commodity. They go up and down monthly. As the economy improves in general, the commodities market for recyclables improves with it,” Ostroff said.
Convenience is key to ‘lifestyle change’ of recycling
Madison County nearly breaks even by selling recyclables, helped by an incentive that’s one-of-a-kind in North Carolina.
With the Penny-a-Pound program, the school system gets a penny for every pound of mixed paper and cardboard recycled. Since the program began in 2006, public schools in Madison County have received about $58,000. Schools receive a baseline amount and get more if they sponsor recycling events and outreach.
“We’ve found that people feel good about taking the extra minute to recycle because it helps schools,” county recycling education coordinator Amanda Cutshaw said.
N.C. Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources recycling director Scott Mouw said Madison County’s Penny-a-Pound program is “a good way to make recycling be about a social good. There’s always something creative that people can do that nobody’s tried before.”
Each Madison household outside the county’s towns pays $190 a year to dispose of waste and recyclables at collection centers or the landfill.
“People say, ‘I don’t have any reason to recycle. I pay the same whether I recycle or not.’ It’s a lifestyle change,” Cutshaw said. “When I started, I met a lot of resistance. A lot of people don’t want you to tell them what to do with their garbage.”
Outreach at schools helps because children encourage their parents to recycle.
Recycling is a harder sell in Cherokee County, which ranked 88th in the state in per capita recycling recovery in fiscal 2009-10.
“Our problem is half our county has open Dumpsters where people dump anything and everything they want to. I wish there weren’t an open Dumpster anywhere in this county,” said Wanda Payne, Cherokee County’s recycling coordinator.
County officials want to increase the recycling rate. “But there’s a money issue, or, in some of those communities, we just cannot find a place to put a (recycling) center,” Payne said.
About half of the county’s households have convenient access to one of five trash and recyclable collection centers located in more populated areas. The main recycling facility is at the landfill, and recycling trailers are located at schools.
But “if you’re 30 miles from the nearest recycling facility, you aren’t going to do it. You have to make it convenient,” Payne said.
New markets for used goods
New markets for recyclables and an emerging recycling economy may make recycling seem more convenient — and relevant.
About 15,200 people worked in private-sector, recycling-related jobs in North Carolina in 2010, and the number is increasing, according to a N.C. Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources report. Nearly half of recycling businesses surveyed plan to create more jobs in the next two years. The total annual payroll for the state’s recycling businesses is $395 million.
A new market, for example, for used roof shingles, which contain petroleum and tar and can be an ingredient to make asphalt, may add jobs at road-paving companies.
“Recycling is a real hot place for entrepreneurs now, and a lot of big manufacturers are looking at recycled materials instead of raw, virgin materials,” Mouw said. “Some small companies are creating a business around collecting recycling materials.”
Danny’s Dumpster in Buncombe County is one such company.
Danny Keaton started the business as a residential garbage pick-up service in Madison County. His Leicester-based company has evolved to focus on collecting food waste, recyclables and trash from restaurants.
Keaton takes the food waste to a commercial composting facility outside Asheville. “Restaurants realized that 60 to 70 percent of their waste was compostable. Why pay for a big Dumpster?” he said.
Each week, Keaton collects roughly 12 tons of compostable material, six tons of recyclables and two tons of landfill garbage from about 60 restaurants in Buncombe and Henderson counties. And he said his business is growing.
“Asheville was such a good place to do this,” Keaton said. “I think people were already wanting to do this sort of thing.”
In Macon County, several small businesses have opened to collect metals, cars and such white goods as washers and dryers to recycle.
Jerry Slaughter of Oteen and his son, Jordan, 17, make money from recycling metals, too.
Jordan and a friend gather dishwashers, faucets, water heaters and other goods from the plumbing business and items from neighbors and sell them at Biltmore Iron & Metal Co. in Asheville.
Slaughter, 58, has recycled since he worked at Warren Wilson College in the 1970s, when the school started a recycling program. When he left in 1986, “it was a pain,” he said, “because I had to take my recyclables to Warren Wilson or whatever place I could find with containers to dump them in.”
Discarding recyclables isn’t a problem for him now. All Slaughter has to do is roll his 95-gallon cart to the curb for pick-up.
“I’m just trying to do my part,” he said.
By the numbers
Here’s where the 17 westernmost counties of North Carolina ranked out of the state’s 100 counties in terms of per capita recycling for fiscal year 2009-2010, according to the North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance and Outreach:
- Buncombe (3rd) with 45,285 tons recycled and the per capita recovery of 393.1 pounds of recyclables.
- Swain (5th) with 1,827 tons and the per capita recovery of 263.8 pounds.
- Macon (8th) with 4,348 tons and the per capita recovery of 252.1 pounds.
- Haywood (12th) with 5,231 tons and the per capita recovery of 180.3 pounds.
- Jackson (19th) with 2,572 tons and the per capita recovery of 135.4 pounds.
- Transylvania (20th) with 2,085 tons and the per capita recovery of 134.1 pounds.
- Madison (23rd) with 1,333 tons and the per capita recovery of 127.9 pounds.
- Yancey (27th) with 1,123 tons and the per capita recovery of 121 pounds.
- Henderson (35th) with 5,483 tons and the per capita recovery of 104.2 pounds.
- Mitchell (38th) with 797 tons and the per capita recovery of 99.8 pounds.
- Polk (48th) with 757 tons and the per capita recovery of 78.2 pounds.
- Graham (54th) with 299 tons and the per capita recovery of 71.8 pounds.
- McDowell (56th) with 1,483 tons and the per capita recovery of 66.3 pounds.
- Avery (59th) with 564 tons and the per capita recovery of 61.7 pounds.
- Rutherford (63rd) with 1,835 tons and the per capita recovery of 57.5 pounds.
- Clay (68th) with 288 tons and the per capita recovery of 54.6 pounds.
- Cherokee (88th) with 381 tons and the per capita recovery of 259 pounds.
- 2010 Employment Trends in North Carolina’s Recycling Industry report from N.C. Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources
- N.C. Div. of Environmental Assistance and Outreach report about County Recycling Performance for Fiscal Year 2009-10