Last month, the city of Lincolnton near Charlotte stopped its recycling program, and residents began throwing their glass, plastic bottles and cardboard into their garbage.
The city's recycling contractor, Sonoco, could no longer find a home for the reusable waste — a problem seen nationwide, and in Charlotte, because the market for recyclables has collapsed.
At Mecklenburg County's recycling facility off North Graham Street, the situation is not as dire, though officials said the economics of recycling are "broken."
The county and its contractor, Republic Services, sometimes give away bales of plastic and mixed paper or even pay countries to take them.
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Republic said Charlotte's recyclables aren't ending up in a dump, even though some bundles are, for now, worthless. But the county's solid waste director said he is concerned that some emerging countries like Vietnam or India may be putting some of Mecklenburg's recyclables in landfills.
"I have no guarantee what someone will do with it once they get it," said Jeff Smithberger, the county's solid waste director. "Where it goes is a bit out of our control sometimes. If it stays in this country, we know it will be taken care of. When it goes to a different country, they aren't as environmentally safe. Whether they recycle it or landfill it or burn it, we don't know."
A combination of homeowners producing more recycling that's "contaminated" with trash, along with China's recent refusal to accept it, has led to a crisis in the recycling industry, experts say.
"The model is broken," said Drew Isenhour, an area president for Republic Services, which has a contract to handle Mecklenburg's recyclables. "It can be fixed. But it's broken."
The county estimates that recycling a ton of material now costs twice as much as dumping it in a landfill. Charlotte and other cities and towns say that recycling is worth it because they believe it's the best thing for the environment and that residents have come to expect it. They argue that it's more sustainable to turn plastic bottles into furniture or old cardboard boxes into new ones.
Gloria Mella of SouthPark said she is cautious to put only recyclables in her green rollout bin.
"Maybe people need to be re-educated about what they can recycle and what they can't," she said.
She said the possibility of her recycling not being reused is distressing.
'Plastic bags are everywhere'
At the county's Materials Recovery Facility, massive machinery sorts recyclables: glass in one pile, cans in another, cardboard in another place.
In addition, county employees stand alongside conveyer belts, looking to pull out contaminants with their hands. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic, paper and glass rumble past.
With so much plastic in the recycling, the men are constantly pulling out bags and wrapping — but other pieces of plastic move past them on the conveyer belt. Their job is next to impossible, like draining a lake with a teacup.
Since the city of Charlotte and the county switched from the small red bins to the large green rollout bins eight years ago, the amount of garbage mixed with recyclables has increased significantly.
Experts say many people are "aspirational" or "wishful" recyclers, meaning they include things that seem like they should be recyclable but aren't: plastic bags from stores, shredded paper, scrap metal, medicine bottles, window panes.
The county also finds plenty of regular trash in their recycling carts as well, such as dirty diapers.
The county once sorted 35 tons an hour. That's fallen to 25 tons because of contaminants.
"Americans want to recycle," said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. "But they aren't very good at it."
The county's machines have trouble differentiating between plastic and paper, so the bales of mixed paper produced by the county and Republic are full of plastic bags.
"Our machines don't know what to do with it," Smithberger said. "Plastic bags are everywhere. They are the bane of our existence."
China has historically been the world's biggest importer of recyclables.
But China has become less and less tolerant of bales with contaminants and began demanding higher-quality bales as part of its "Green Fence" initiative. The country earlier this year started its "National Sword" policy, which ended almost all of its recycling imports.
Republic Services' contract with Mecklenburg County requires that it remove every ton of recycling from the site that it brings in. The contract does not require that the material be recycled. That has never been an issue, because there has always been a financial incentive for companies to recycle, since both the county and its contractor made money by selling crushed bales of cans, plastic and cardboard.
But that has changed.
"We were getting $120 per ton (for recyclables) and now we are getting nothing or paying to get rid of it," Isenhour said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Isenhour said Republic is scrambling to keep municipalities nationwide from not scrapping their recycling programs altogether. Some cities and towns have already abandoned recycling glass, since it's expensive and often contaminated. (Think peanut butter inside jars.)
"Getting rid of the recyclable program is not the best way to deal with this," he said. "We are trying to be sustainable."
Republic said it wasn't completely reliant on China. Some cardboard is sent to a Sonoco facility in Hartsville, S.C. Strategic Materials in Wilson, N.C., also buys glass.
Republic's report to Mecklenburg County said its old newspaper is going to Asia, though the report wasn't specific. The same is true for plastics, which are also bound for Asia.
Isenhour said Republic is finding new markets in Vietnam, India and Indonesia, even if it's having to pay them to take bales. He said the company works to ensure those countries are recycling their products, not just placing all or some of the bales in landfills.
"If it's going to an end market, we validate that it's being reused and not being landfilled," he said. "We are not landfilling anything in my area. We validate that."
Biderman said some cities and towns in the Pacific Northwest and New England have dumped their recyclables in landfills because they couldn't find anyone to take them. But he said he believes developing countries are recycling what they receive.
"The cost of labor in developing countries allows them to recycle," he said.
Laura Hennemann is a vice president at Strategic Materials, which recycles glass in Wilson. She expects other countries will follow China's lead.
"It will be a short while before those other countries will say no, too," she said. "It's been convenient to export it. We have to find a solution as a country for recycling as a whole."
New contract will be more expensive
Mecklenburg's contract with Republic ends in 2019.
Smithberger said the next recycling contract will almost certainly cost taxpayers more.
To put a ton of trash in the county's landfill costs $33, he said. Two years ago, it cost $45 a ton to recycle, but the county and Republic split the profits from selling it.
The cost per ton is now about $70, Smithberger said. He said he wouldn't be surprised if it reaches $90 a ton.
Shannon Binns is the executive director of the nonprofit Sustain Charlotte. He said this down market is a "long overdue wake-up call that we can't consume large quantities of single-use, disposable materials just because they are recyclable."
He said the county and city need to identify the top five sources of contamination and create an educational campaign to help people understand what is recyclable and what isn't.
Binns said the county could ask restaurants to stop giving people single-use disposable bags and other items and could offer a certification program for restaurants that eliminate certain single-use plastics.
Smithberger said the county can charge homeowners more, and he can hire more people to sift through the waste, pulling out plastic bags and other non-recyclables.
But he said that will compete with other priorities: Schools. Affordable Housing. Public health.
"There is hope for recycling," he said. "But it won't be easy."
Jeff Smithberger, Mecklenburg's solid waste services director, holds a piece of styrofoam in one hand and an empty Coke can in another. "We want this," he said, waving the red can.
"We don't want this," he said, waving the styrofoam. Smithberger said the introduction of the large green rollout recycling carts means people are putting more "contaminants" in their recycling.
They mean well, he said, but having non-recyclables makes recycling time-consuming and more expensive.
▪ Plastic bags are probably the most common contaminant. Plastic wrapping is also a problem. In some cases, the plastic wrapping has a symbol showing it can be recycled. It can be recycled — just not curbside. "The recycle symbol does NOT mean the material is accepted for recycling in the curbside cart," the county said. "The recycling symbol means recyclable materials were used to make the material and likely recyclable in the correct program."
▪ Aluminum cans are a profitable thing for the county to recycle, and the county would prefer people drink beer from cans instead of bottles. But in some cases, people fill an entire garbage bag with aluminum cans. That means someone at a recycling facility will have to empty the cans from the bag.
▪ There are other items that people think are recyclable but aren't. They include paper plates, cups, napkins and tissue. Paper cups have a wax liner that makes them unable to be recycled. The other paper products probably have food or liquids on them.
▪ Other items that aren't acceptable for curbside recycling: garden hoses, electrical cords, clothing, household glass, shredded paper, scrap metal and car parts.