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Airport seeks new vendor to run troubled worm farm, recycling program

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/07/14/42/dlzjf.Em.138.jpeg|202
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Mark Wiebke, assistant aviation director of facilities for Charlotte Douglas International Airport, examines a room full of recycled trash bales in storage space at the the airport’s Recycling Center. The recycling project has been hamstrung by broken equipment and cost overruns.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/07/14/42/9JPPR.Em.138.jpeg|254
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Mark Wiebke, assistant aviation director of facilities for Charlotte Douglas International Airport, holds red wiggler earthworms from the worm-based composting system at the airport’s Recycling Center. Though the center was announced in late 2011, a state permit required to use the worms’ droppings as fertilizer – the centerpiece of the project – wasn’t issued until January.

The worms at Charlotte Douglas International Airport could soon be under new management, as the airport seeks a new contractor to run its recycling program.

The Airport Recycling Center has been beset with delays, cost overruns and equipment malfunctions, an Observer investigation in December showed. The program centers around two innovative ideas: Sorting all of the terminal’s trash and recyclable goods and selling the recyclables, and using more than a million red wiggler worms to eat travelers’ food scraps and make compost.

According a request for proposals the airport published late last week, Charlotte Douglas is looking for a new vendor to staff and operate the recycling center. Since 2011, a Cornelius-based company called Go Green, Reduce Reuse Resell has operated the facility, although emails obtained by the Observer showed the owner has sometimes butted heads with airport management over whether it was fulfilling its duties.

State corporate records also show Go Green was administratively dissolved as a corporation in January after failing to file a required annual report. Airport officials didn’t learn of the administrative dissolution until Monday, a spokeswoman said.

“The airport is working to resolve this uncertainty with the current owner and determine next steps,” said Lee Davis in an email.

“Until then, Aviation Department staff is maintaining the facility and the worm-composting operation,” Davis wrote. “The airport is working to resolve this as soon as possible so full operations can resume.”

Go Green owner Cynthia Payne did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Charlotte Douglas decided to build the recycling center in 2011, under then-aviation director Jerry Orr, and opened the facility in June 2012.

Orr signed a management deal with Go Green to run the airport’s recycling center without a competitive bidding process. He has told the Observer that the agreement would give the airport enough control to take over the recycling center if problems arose.

The original contract was for a three-year term, with two one-year extensions exercisable at the city’s discretion.

Now, a competitive bidding process will be used to pick the airport’s next recycling center operator. Total cost and the vendor’s experience will be considered as factors, the airport said.

The one-story trash-sorting facility and worm farm on Yorkmont Road south of the terminal cost about $1 million to install and more than $536,000 to operate in its first full year. The center sold about $270,000 worth of recycled materials that year.

The recycling center ran into numerous roadblocks, however. A state permit required to use the worms’ droppings as fertilizer – the centerpiece of the project – wasn’t issued until January because the airport did not have a canopy to cover the area outside the recycling center where trash is unloaded.

And inside the center, city records show that equipment broke frequently, unprocessed trash piled up, key conveyor belts often stopped functioning and a worker was treated at Carolinas Medical Center after his arm was pulled into a machine.

Charlotte Douglas officials have said that, despite early setbacks, they are correcting problems at the recycling center and expect it to be a success. Thousands of tons of waste have been diverted from the landfill, helping to reduce disposal fees.

The airport’s new request for proposals shows the airport plans to consolidate its recycling center and landfill hauling services with a single company. “By consolidating these operations, CLT hopes to see an increase in efficiency and a more streamlined process,” the airport wrote.

In the first five months of this year, the recycling center generated revenue of just over $110,000 by selling recycled goods such as plastic and aluminum, according to sales figures in the airport’s request for proposals. The proposal also shows that the airport plans to continue using the worm fertilizer on its grounds at no cost, saving money by replacing fertilizer purchased for landscaping.

Payne, Go Green’s owner, proposed starting the recycling center after auditing the airport’s waste stream in 2009.

Charlotte Douglas was her firm’s first major customer, according to Payne. Under the current contract, Go Green handles the day-to-day operations and splits revenue from selling recyclable goods 50-50 with Charlotte Douglas.

The airport is considering two payment methods for the next contract.

One is a flat fee, under which the company would be paid a fee and then bear all costs and keep all profits from the recycling center; the other is a management fee model in which the airport would reimburse the company for expenses and pay a bonus based on revenue generated.

Charlotte Douglas is an independently funded city department, with costs paid by airline landing fees, concessions, parking revenue and federal grants.

The airport expects to award the contract in early September.

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