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Future of recycling in limbo in the Carolinas

Americans are bad at recycling, according to experts. They say up to 60 percent of material that makes it to the facility is garbage.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For many area households area, recycling is a big part of the weekly routine. 

But after China announced in late 2018 they would stop buying recyclables from the U.S., some towns and municipalities cut back-on or ended recycling programs all together.

This has left many in our area wondering if efforts to recycle are still making a difference.

“Honestly the outlook for 2019 is still fairly uncertain,” said Mark Pergolese, district manager for Waste Connections, also known as God Bless the U.S.A. Waste Management. The company serves roughly 15,000 subscription customers and several municipalities, adding up to around 40,000 customers from multiple counties including Union and Mecklenburg.

Pergolese said companies like his have been forced to adopt new recycling processes to keep costs down for customers as global demand has changed.

“The processing facility wants to charge service providers like ourselves one price if glass bottles are included in it and a lower rate if glass bottles are excluded from it. So, what we’re doing is telling our customers that we’re no longer accepting glass bottles in our single stream recycling mix,” he said.

In a letter sent to customers, the company also announced that beginning January 1, the cost to recycle was going up and the frequency of how often recyclables would be collected would be going down.

“The cost of processing the material has soared over the past year so one of the things we’re trying to do to reduce the cost to the customer is reduce some of the collection costs. We’re looking to go to twice a month or every other week collection. That will help control cost,” said Pergolese.

But Waste Connections is not alone. In Mecklenburg County, residents could see the cost to recycle go up by roughly $3.50 a year during 2019, according to Jeffrey Smithberger, director of Mecklenburg County’s Solid Waste department.

Smithberger said aside from costs going up, residents should not expect to see any changes during 2019 in regards to what products are accepted or banned, saying Mecklenburg is unique in that the county owns and contracts its own recycling center.

In Indian Trail, council members are expected to discuss what options the town has in regards to its recycling program at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, January 8, according to Mike Parks, the town’s director of communications. Parks said all options are on the table, but residents will be invited to give input at a later date.

So what’s led to all of the changes? Americans are bad at recycling, according to experts. They say up to 60 percent of material that makes it to recycling facilities is garbage. China cited the "contamination" as the main reason it stopped buying recyclables from the U.S.

“It’s all about re-educating the public,” said Pergolese.

“The tall kitchen trash bags are not recyclable, the bags that you get from a grocery store are not recyclable, and one of the things that most people don’t think about are pizza boxes. Because of all the residual food that’s still in the box, that becomes a contaminant and that can reject an entire load of recycling,” he says.

Pergolese said this new year Waste Connections will be mailing customers reminders on the dos and don’ts of what can and can’t be recycled. He said by being better recyclers, not only can people better ensure their recyclables are being reused, but it will also cost them less.

“We will help navigate you through all of these challenges,” he said.

One additional hurdle recycling facilities are facing, according to Smithberger, is the packaging itself. Smithberger said manufacturers are producing packaging that’s impossible to recycle. 

One example he gave NBC Charlotte was a peanut container, which contains cardboard sides, steel bottom and plastic top. He says each material needs to be separated in order to be recycled, and it’s impossible for his machines to catch it.