Charlotte must not go backward on recycling at apartments

If the city doesn’t pick up recycling from apartments, no one is likely to.
If the city doesn’t pick up recycling from apartments, no one is likely to. File photo

Charlotte’s City Council and Solid Waste Services are discussing whether to eliminate municipal trash and recycling service to apartment complexes. This is a step in the wrong direction because it would result in fewer Charlotteans being able to recycle at home and would move the city further from its own stated goal of diverting waste from the landfill. The ability to recycle at home should be a right, not a privilege.

The 2013 Multi-family, Small Business, and Rate Structure Review report commissioned by the city shows that it’s not the norm for cities across the nation to provide recycling service to apartment complexes. But Charlotte lacks the incentives or, in some cases, requirements to recycle that some of the peer cities evaluated in the consultant’s report have. For example, the Maryland Recycling Act requires Baltimore City to recycle at least 20 percent of waste generated. Greensboro residents are required to recycle many materials by county ordinance. Austin, Texas, offers residents a choice of trash can sizes at different prices so they can control costs by reducing waste, recycling and composting.

Charlotteans pay the same solid waste fee regardless of how much they throw away. Recycling isn’t mandated for residential customers, and there’s no financial incentive to recycle. Plastic bottles have been banned from landfills by state law since 2009. But how are we going to keep recyclables out of the landfill if we don’t provide a practical way for apartment residents to recycle?

Then there’s the question of how we can protect the environment and offer municipal services equitably as we grow. Charlotte is facing the second-fastest population growth rate among large U.S. cities. We the nation’s 21st most-expensive rental market. The housing choices that current and future residents make will largely determine whether Charlotte continues to sprawl or whether we manage our growth sustainably.

If apartment complexes are required to independently contract with and pay for their own solid waste haulers, the additional cost will inevitably be passed on to residents. This will hurt some of our lowest-income citizens who can least afford it. And after paying for trash pickup, how many apartment complex owners will also take on the additional, optional expense of contracting with recycling haulers so their residents have the ability to recycle at home?

There has been vigorous debate about which option is best, but largely missing from the discussion has been the question of how the final decision will move the city closer to its 2016 Environment Focus Area Plan goal of developing “a baseline toward 100 percent achievement of waste diversion from landfill.”

It’s time for a new solid waste ordinance that will move Charlotte toward a way of managing waste that is sustainable in every possible way: environmentally responsible, fiscally sound, and socially equitable.

Meg Fencil is education and outreach director at Sustain Charlotte.