Change is coming to recycling in Charlotte. What you need to know and ask

A rule-breaking recycling bin.
A rule-breaking recycling bin. Charlotte Observer

Last year, this editorial board decided to go rogue and see what happened if we disobeyed the city of Charlotte’s new cardboard recycling rules. We left big pieces in our recycling bin, then waited to see what consequences would be delivered from the long arm of the recycling truck. There weren’t any. If you violate the city’s recycling rules, you get at worst a note saying not to do so again, a spokesperson told us.

Since then, readers occasionally send us questions about their recycling, most of which can be answered on the city’s website. But a few complaints lately caught our attention. The city is apparently not collecting from some bins, and not letting customers know why. Have the city’s recycling regulations changed again?

No and yes. The city’s recycling rules are the same, Solid Waste Services spokesperson Brandi Williams told us Monday. But there is now a larger fine ($150) for leaving your bin out too long, and the city is putting greater emphasis on its website on rules such as keeping that bin three feet away from your regular trash bin. If you violate those rules, you’ll still get a warning note from the city, but your bin should get dumped.

Why is that not happening for some? Williams said the city has been having problems with Waste Management, the contractor tasked with collecting recycling. “We’ve had several issues,” she says.

For many cities, including ours, recycles are about to get a whole lot more challenging. Single-stream recycling is a broken and costly mess. Prices for scrap paper and plastic have plummeted. China is less enthusiastic about taking our trash and cardboard, and there are questions about exactly how much recycling material is actually getting recycled instead of dumped in landfills.

Now, cities like Charlotte are facing — or are about to confront — hard questions about their recycling programs. Many that used to earn money selling their scrap now find themselves paying to get rid of it. Some are abandoning recycling altogether.

That hasn’t happened in Charlotte, which Williams says has a recycling contract that doesn’t expire until 2019. But our program is getting costlier, and the city admitted this year that it’s not certain all the recyclables we ship away are getting recycled.

The good news: Charlotte appears to be proactive about confronting its waste issues. This week, the city will announce Circular Charlotte, a partnership between the city, Envision Charlotte and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that pursues opportunities and technologies to “upcycle” waste into more purposeful uses. (Update: That news conference has been moved to Sept. 27 because of Hurricane Florence.)

Circular Charlotte is an intriguing venture, and officials should be applauded for pursuing innovative solutions, but for the short term it’s not likely to solve the recycling challenges facing our city. There are higher costs and hard questions ahead. Should Charlotte fundamentally change how and what the city and its residents collect?

Recycling has always been a worthy pursuit. But change is coming. Charlotte will need to be candid with its residents — and Charlotteans with themselves — about what we get out of recycling, and what we’re willing to pay.