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Charlotte airport's recycling center struggles with delays, overruns

    Diedra Laird -
    Employees l-r To Y (CQ) and Sean Malcolm at work shoveling trash into a baler at the Charlotte Airport Recycling Center. When it was first announced in late 2011, the Charlotte Airport Recycling Center was touted as a new model of efficiency and fiscal responsibility. But two years in, the project has been hamstrung by broken equipment and cost overruns and the centerpiece of its project - worm composting - hasn't gotten a state permit to operate yet.
    Diedra Laird -
    Plant supervisor Ybu Nie moves recycled trash bales to a storage area at the Charlotte Airport Recycling Center. When it was first announced in late 2011, the Charlotte Airport Recycling Center was touted as a new model of efficiency and fiscal responsibility. But two years in, the project has been hamstrung by broken equipment and cost overruns.

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  • What to do with all that trash?

    Each passenger at Charlotte Douglas throws out, on average, a half pound of garbage, airport officials say. Nationwide, airports generate an estimated 425,000 tons of waste every year. But experts say most airports recycle less than 20 percent of their waste.

    By diverting 30 percent of its waste from the landfill, Charlotte Douglas is doing well for an airport, said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council.

    “That’s a pretty good rate, as far as it goes,” Hershkowitz said of Charlotte Douglas. The key to breaking past that, he said, would be collecting and recycling food waste, which the airport is attempting to do with its fledgling worm-composting program.

    Still, Hershkowitz said that turning a profit with trash – as the airport once optimistically said it could do – is tough.

    “Usually, by itself, the revenue from the sale of recyclables is not enough to cover the cost of operating the infrastructure,” he said. But it’s still better than paying someone else to bury the waste in a landfill, because the airport can get some money back, he said. “Recycling is the only waste management opportunity that offers at least some opportunity to recover costs, whether or not it’s a profitable venture.”

    Ely Portillo

A recycling complex at Charlotte’s airport envisioned as a green innovation and a profit center has been beset in its first year by cost overruns, broken equipment and permitting delays, an Observer review of public records shows.

The airport awarded a Cornelius company the contract to run the recycling center in 2011 without seeking other bids. Airport officials touted it as a model of fiscal and environmental responsibility: Workers would sort and sell trash instead of sending it to the landfill. And millions of worms would turn travelers’ food scraps into fertilizer.

Now the airport has scaled back its expectations. Instead of turning a profit selling trash, its leaders now say the center will at least hold down waste disposal costs.

Meanwhile, airport officials have yet to obtain the necessary permits for the most innovative part of the project – harnessing worm waste for profit – leaving the worms and their fertilizer in limbo.

Officials with Charlotte Douglas International Airport and with Go Green, which manages the recycling center, acknowledge there have been problems. But they say the center is still saving money. Before last year, only a small amount of cardboard and glass was recycled. Most of the airport’s thousands of tons of waste were being sent to the landfill near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The recycling center diverted 2,500 tons of waste from the landfill last year, about 30 percent of the airport’s total. And officials expect to obtain a permit as soon as this week to start full-scale worm composting.

Cynthia Payne, president of Go Green, acknowledges that she had no waste management experience before setting up her company. She proposed starting the airport recycling center after auditing the waste stream for Charlotte Douglas, her first big customer, in 2009.

Then-aviation director Jerry Orr signed the contract with Go Green in 2011. A consultant who reviewed Payne’s proposal found that Go Green did “not appear to have a meaningful track record.” But the consultant said the no-bid contract was “commercially reasonable” because of Go Green’s familiarity with airport operations.

Payne said last week that she thinks the program has been a success.

“We’ve really overcome an immense amount of challenges,” said Payne. “You always have to learn what doesn’t work in an effort to learn what does work.”

Assistant aviation director Mark Wiebke, who oversees the project for the airport, concurred: “We want it to work, and we’re going to make it work.”

‘This is unacceptable’

Hundreds of emails obtained by the Observer through a public records request show problems emerged within a few months after the center opened in June 2012 and stirred tensions between Go Green and airport officials:

• Barely two months into the worm composting efforts, the airport suspended that part of the project in December 2012 because the project lacked a required permit. In a separate issue, Payne said there were no safety bars over the mixing blades of a processing vessel for food scraps. “This is a direct OSHA violation and a tremendous liability,” Payne wrote. Airport officials said they installed the safety grate in November this year.

• On July 30, Wiebke walked through the recycling center. “I could not believe the amount of unprocessed waste and the condition of the facility. This is unacceptable,” he wrote to Payne. “We also found a large amount of maggots in the storage area.” Payne said last week that the building had been cleaned up since then, but that maggots are likely anywhere food waste is processed.

“You’re going to have maggots. It’s an inherent part of this,” she said. Payne also said four cats have been brought in to serve as a natural, chemical-free way to control rats and other vermin.

• On Sept. 16, paramedics and the fire department were called to the recycling center after a worker’s arm was pulled into a machine. Although Payne initially thought his arm was broken, it turned out to be only bruised. The worker, whom Payne did not identify, was treated at Carolinas Medical Center. Payne said he has recovered and no longer works at Go Green.

A spokesman for the N.C. Department of Labor said only incidents in which a worker dies or three or more are hospitalized must be reported, and the Sept. 16 incident didn’t rise to that level. A review of OSHA records found no workplace safety violations at the recycling center.

• Key conveyor belts at the recycling facility broke on Oct. 4 and Nov. 9, 11 and 16, partially shutting it down. “At this time, both of our conveyors are down and we have 7 loads of trash in the yard,” Payne wrote on Nov. 18. The conveyor belt was down again last week when an Observer reporter visited.

• On July 17, Orr told his staff to stop the airport’s nomination for the Charlotte Chamber’s Wells Fargo Green Awards. The airport was a finalist, in part because of the recycling center. “Jerry would like this nomination stopped,” wrote Haley Gentry, special assistant to the aviation director. “(He) has some hesitation about drawing attention to something that still has operational challenges to be worked out ... can you handle quickly?”

How Go Green began

Before starting Go Green, Payne, a St. Louis native, said she had been a SeaWorld marine mammal rescue worker, a competitive horse rider and a worker for environmental causes. She had the idea for the company while her son was ill in Levine Children’s Hospital, she said.

“I was extraordinarily astonished by how much was thrown away,” she said. So Payne decided to create a company to sort waste and recover as much as possible.

She said she approached a school, a race track and a hospital, as well as the airport. Wiebke said Charlotte Douglas was receptive because the airport was experimenting with recycling programs at the time.

The airport hired Payne to conduct an audit of what travelers throw away. She helped lead a program that increased the payments Charlotte Douglas got for recycled cardboard to $114 a ton, up from an average of $10 to $30.

In June 2010, Larry Ostema of the energy finance company Abundant Power reviewed Go Green’s proposal for an airport recycling center. He wrote that the idea was reasonable and recommended that the airport hire Go Green.

Ostema noted the company’s short history and cautioned that he had not interviewed any Go Green clients. He wrote that he had talked with larger, more experienced companies that “may be interested” in the airport’s project, including Raleigh-based Orbit Energy, General Electric and Nextera. But the airport wanted to award the contract to Go Green, without a competitive bidding process.

“Given the size of the waste stream and Go Green’s familiarity with the airport’s operations, we believe the decision to forgo a larger (request for proposals) process and pursue a single-source contract is commercially reasonable,” Ostema wrote.

The Airport Advisory Committee unanimously approved Go Green’s contract to run the recycling center, and the City Council approved it without discussion in April 2011. Charlotte Douglas is an independently funded city department, overseen by the City Council, with a $205 million budget.

Orr told the Observer last week that he thought signing the company without a larger bidding process was a good idea because the airport would retain control of the recycling center. Charlotte Douglas would have the ability to terminate the contract and take over the project if the need arose.

“We decided for us to make the investment and use it as a management contract,” Orr said. “We’d have total control, and that way if it didn’t go well, we can cut our losses.”

He acknowledges the launch hasn’t been smooth. “It was a struggle getting it up and running,” said Orr, who was removed from his city job in July in a dispute over airport governance. “Like a lot of startups, it cost more and produced less.”

Payne told the Observer that she had other, smaller clients before Charlotte Douglas but that the airport has been by far her biggest customer. She declined to disclose any of her other clients.

Payne said she did extensive research and consulted with experts at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources when setting up her company.

“I have always thought that it was actually the greatest strength that we did not come from the solid waste industry,” she said. Payne said traditional waste management companies focus on landfills, which are profit generators.

“We would be their nemesis,” she said. “They would not want this to be a success.”

Revised expectations

The 30,000-square-foot recycling center is housed in a former catering company building on airport property on Yorkmont Road. Inside, a dozen Go Green employees stand at a conveyor belt that brings in trash hauled in from the planes and the terminal.

A sweet smell, like overripe fruit or warm, stale soda, fills the nose as small flies weave between crushed cans, bottles and plastic bags. Workers sort the stream of trash – 20 to 35 tons a day, Payne said – into huge blue balers that compress each type of recyclable into cubes weighing hundreds of pounds, ready to sell to large recycling companies such as Georgia-Pacific.

Under the contract with Go Green, the airport is responsible for installing equipment and owns the facility. Go Green staffs the facility, operates it and sells the recovered materials. The airport and Go Green split the revenue from those sales.

Despite the program’s success at diverting thousands of tons of waste from the landfill, airport officials have lowered their expectations. They had hoped to divert 70 percent of trash from the landfill, but Wiebke now says the airport can probably divert up to 50 percent – up from the current 30 percent. The airport plans to use the worm compost on its own land to save on fertilizer, instead of selling it.

And while Orr said in April, “We intend to make trash disposal a profit center,” interim aviation director Brent Cagle doesn’t think that’s realistic.

“We don’t want to set our goals too high and say we’re expecting it to be a profit center,” said Cagle. He said the program is a way to keep landfill costs down and operate more sustainably.

The facility cost about $1 million to install, Wiebke said. In its first year, it cost $536,369 to operate, 28 percent more than was initially projected.

Go Green sold almost $270,000 worth of goods – about 30 percent below the projected sales for the first year – and split the proceeds 50-50 with the airport.

At the end of the year, the recycling center had a $489,512 loss, counting equipment depreciation.

But Wiebke said the loss doesn’t include the airport’s savings on its waste hauling bill. Charlotte Douglas saved about $127,000 in fiscal 2013 because it sent less to the landfill. The airport spent $409,546 on landfill fees, down from $536,979 the prior year, even as passenger traffic increased more than 5 percent.

Wiebke said sales of recyclables are on track to hit $360,000 this year.

Trash into cash

While there are large-scale worm composting operations throughout the country and other airports operate recycling centers, Charlotte Douglas’ combination of the two appears rare.

“It’s the only one in the world that I’m aware of,” said Brian Rosa, a compost specialist with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who has been advising the airport. “A lot of airports are looking at it to see how well it’s performed.”

The DENR is responsible for issuing the worm-composting permit. That was held up by the lack of a canopy covering the yard where trash is brought. The worms, which reside in raised beds inside the recycling center, have been fed compost from Wallace Farms in Huntersville to keep them alive while they wait.

To show the worms are doing well, Payne and Wiebke both plunged their hands into the worm bins and pulled out handfuls of the Eisenia fetida, or red wigglers, squirming under the recycling center’s lights.

“They’ve really thrived,” said Payne.

“They’ve been pooping quite a bit,” said Wiebke.

The airport built the $89,000 canopy this year. A state inspector visited the plant last week and said the recycling center needs to rebuild an asphalt curb around the trash dump area. Once that’s done, Wiebke said he expects the airport to get its composting permit as early as this week.

Payne and Wiebke said they will then start harvesting the castings, as the worm’s excrement is more politely known.

“It was one of those things we didn’t anticipate,” Wiebke said of the permitting process and the holdup over the canopy. “It’s probably a little longer than you’d like, but that’s the process.”

Despite the troubles of its first year, Payne and Wiebke say they’re focused on making sure the recycling center improves.

Charlotte Douglas is looking to hire a consultant to review the recycling center’s operations. To keep the trash-sorting line moving without more breakdowns, the airport plans to inspect the center daily and has directed Payne to keep a preventive maintenance log.

“This thing is moving all the time,” Wiebke said of the recycling center’s equipment. “It’s seven days a week, and we just want to make sure it’s properly maintained.”

And both Payne and Wiebke said that although they have had disagreements, their working relationship is intact.

“People that are passionate about things argue. Sometimes it comes out in emails; you get frustrated,” said Wiebke. “You butt heads every now and then.”

Payne praised Charlotte Douglas. “The airport has been pretty amazing,” she said. “We’re changing the world.” Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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