News & Opinion

Understanding How Mecklenburg County Recycling Systems Work

A empty trash can sits on the side of the street in a neighborhood at night
The amount of garbage collected by the city of Charlotte each year is growing faster than the population itself. (Photo by Karie Simmons)

When you put items into trash or recycling bins, have you ever thought about where they go next? If you’re anything like me, many of you might be surprised to learn that the actions you’ve been taking, which you thought were helping — or at least not hurting — were actually putting a strain on our current waste management systems and negatively impacting our environment.

It’s no secret that we’re producing more trash today than ever before. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans in 1960 generated 2.68 pounds of garbage per person each day. By 2018, the most recent data available, that number had grown to an average of 4.9 pounds per person. 

To put things in perspective, that’s as much as a bag of flour, six pairs of jeans, or two and a half 12-inch pizzas.

We dutifully put items into our recycling or trash bins thinking that’s where our responsibility ends — we’ve done our job and the rest is out of our hands — but experts in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County’s solid waste management say that final step could be doing more harm than good.

A lot of it has to do with confusion about what is acceptable for curbside trash and recycling, and how we’re supposed to dispose of certain materials. But in order to understand the impact of what we’re doing wrong, we must first understand how everything works.

Recycling right

In Charlotte, recyclables are picked up by the City of Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services department and brought to the Metrolina Recycling Center, also called a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), located in Charlotte’s Sugar Creek area. 

The facility, which is owned by Mecklenburg County and operated by Republic Services, processes and sorts all of the single-stream recyclable materials collected from residential, schools and commercial recycling programs across Mecklenburg and neighboring counties.

The MRF processes roughly 400 tons of recyclables every day. Materials received there are sorted by employees, along with specialized equipment designed to separate some recyclables.

According to Aaron Caudle of the county’s Solid Waste Management​ department, dealing with contamination — when non-recyclable items, aka trash, are mixed in with recyclable items — is a constant battle at the recycling center.

A recycling truck dumps its load on the floor of a warehouse
Recyclables brought to the Mecklenburg County recycling center. (Courtesy of Mecklenburg County)

Contamination is often caused by what’s called “wishful recycling,” or assuming something is recyclable when it’s not, according to Caudle. In Mecklenburg County, the most common examples of items involved with wishful recycling are takeout containers, wide-mouth plastic containers (margarine, cottage cheese, yogurt, Cool Whip), clamshell produce containers, Styrofoam and plastic bags.

Caudle said MRF employees see diapers, metal chairs, tables, even a bowling ball coming through the facility, put in bins by residents who “wish” for them to be recycled.

“When materials go to our recycling center, they go through all of these very expensive sorting machines that can get damaged and broken from something metal going through, or like a bowling ball, and that tears up the machinery and that costs us more money, which in turn costs everybody else more,” Caudle said.

The only plastic items that are currently recyclable in Mecklenburg County are containers with necks such as beverage bottles. This is due to an overall decline in the global market for recyclables, especially since China stopped accepting the bulk of the world’s plastic waste in 2018. Plastic containers with necks are the only plastic for which there’s still a domestic market.

“We no longer accept all the things that we used to, so the numbers on the bottom don’t really mean anything in Charlotte,” said Brandi Williams with City of Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services, which collects Charlotte’s garbage, recycling, yard and bulk waste.

Williams is referring to the resin identification code, a number between one and seven stamped inside a small triangle made of arrows located on the bottom of plastic products that’s used to help recycling plants sort materials. 

Mecklenburg County doesn’t follow this plastic numbering system and most of the numbered plastics fail to meet the Federal Trade Commission’s classification of recyclable because there aren’t enough facilities that process them to make new products. 

In addition to plastic containers with necks, curbside recycling bins are also for cardboard, aluminum cans, milk and juice cartons, glass bottles and jars, and paper items like magazines and junk mail — but not shredded paper because it falls through the screening equipment at the MRF and contaminates the glass.

Compacted cubes of recycling
Recyclable materials are sorted, baled and sold at the Mecklenburg County recycling center. (Courtesy of Mecklenburg County)

Though well-intentioned, Caudle said wishful recycling creates contamination in the system and is counter-productive to the overall effectiveness of the recycling program because any material received by the MRF that can’t be sorted, baled and sold ends up in a landfill.

Caudle said the Mecklenburg County spends $1.9 million each year on contamination at its recycling facilities.

“And that’s just people popping in a bag or tossing in some Styrofoam or any material that isn’t recyclable and can’t be ran through our system. It’s separated out and then landfilled anyways, and that costs the county,” Caudle said. 

“If you kind of think it’s recycling, and you throw it in there, you might be adding to this problem. We’d rather you just go ahead and throw it in the trash.”

However, before you throw the item in the trash, Caudle said first consider taking it somewhere else. Mecklenburg County operates four full-service drop-off centers around the county that accept a range of materials not welcome in curbside recycling bins including yard waste, batteries, tires, household hazardous waste and scrap metal, among other items.

Plastic bags and plastic film can often be recycled at national grocery store retailers, and unwanted working electronics can be donated to Goodwill or The GRID, Goodwill’s discount technology store, located on its Wilkinson Boulevard campus.

The plastic clamshell containers used to package fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, which are not recyclable in Mecklenburg County, can be brought to The Bulb, a donation-based, nonprofit food justice organization housed at The Innovation Barn in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. The Bulb reuses the containers to package food for their weekly mobile markets across the Charlotte metro area.

Although glass bottles and jars are accepted in curbside recycling, Caudle said it’s better if residents bring them to designated bins at the county’s drop-off centers or The Innovation Barn so they can be shipped to glass-only recyclers.

“Glass is very abrasive and it’s running through our machines constantly,” Caudle said. “It wears them down quicker, which causes stoppages and breakdowns, so we’re trying to keep glass out of our recycling facility.”

Mecklenburg County ultimately makes the decision about what materials the city can and cannot collect for curbside recycling based on global and domestic markets and what materials the MRF can handle. 

Williams said that very short list of acceptable items is part of the reason why the amount of recycling in Charlotte hasn’t increased by much over the years, despite more people moving to the city than ever before.

In Fiscal Year 2022, the city of Charlotte collected 46,449 tons of recycling from curbside bins, just 2.8% more than FY17 and 5.6% more than FY13, far lower increases than the corresponding population growth (8% and 14%, respectively).

Williams said part of the reason is that city ordinance does not make it mandatory for multi-family complexes to offer recycling services for residents. Those that do are doing it because “it’s advantageous and they have certain standards to maintain,” she said. For others, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

The city collected approximately 2,510 tons of recycling at multi-family residences, which include apartments, condos and townhomes. That’s 47.3% less than the amount collected in FY17, despite there being a remarkable overall increase in multi-family units across the city. 

“What we find a lot of times is the residents aren’t disposing of the right things and the complexes are actually getting in trouble for what the residents are doing, so it’s easier to not offer it,” Williams said.

At the landfill

While recyclables in Mecklenburg County are processed, sold and shipped away to (hopefully) be made into new material, our garbage — plus what’s deemed not recyclable at the MRF — goes into the landfill.

Charlotte’s garbage is brought to the Speedway Landfill, a 550-acre municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill next to Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord that’s filled with decomposing household trash from Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and surrounding counties.

Municipal solid waste landfills can accept normal household waste and are built to comply with state and federal regulations, providing protection for ground water, air quality and adjacent properties.

They’re constructed in layers, with each layer consisting of a protective liner, garbage compacted into a dense form, and a cover of soil. The garbage decomposes over time as bacteria and other microorganisms break down the materials in the landfill.

MSW landfills are a major generator of methane gas due to the mixture of non-food waste and organic waste (food scraps, yard and garden trimmings) decomposing together. 

Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming and climate change. 

Rather than leaking into the atmosphere, landfill methane can be captured, converted and used as a renewable energy resource for generating electricity or heat. Still, the best climate defense would be to keep as much organic waste out of the landfill as possible, which can be accomplished through composting.

Caudle said landfill space is always a concern in the solid waste industry.

“The landfill is not going to be around forever. Once the landfill is all filled up, your trash has to go somewhere and that unfortunately means costs for citizens are going to go up because you have to pay to transport your trash somewhere,” Caudle said. “Right now, we’ve got room at the landfill. The landfill is not a problem. But you know, that’s not to say it won’t be in 20 years or however long.”

Unlike recycling, the amount of trash collected by the city is only increasing. In FY22, the city of Charlotte collected approximately 297,799 tons of garbage from residential curbside bins and multi-family residences. That’s 11.5% more than FY17 and 31.2% over FY13, meaning Charlotte’s garbage is growing faster than the population itself.

Caudle said the goal is to maximize landfill airspace — the total amount of material that can go into the landfill — through different ways of compaction, to extend the life of the landfill and keep costs down. 

Of course, Caudle said, reducing the amount of waste would also extend the life of the landfill, as would diverting more materials away from the landfill through recycling, repurposing, composting and donating.

One man’s trash

The Innovation Barn is doing a lot of work to divert materials by making new products and finding new uses for trash otherwise slated for the landfill. In other words, one man’s trash is the Innovation Barn’s treasure.

The former horse barn turned sustainability lab, located on Seigle Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood, is ground zero for Circular Charlotte, a joint project between nonprofit Envision Charlotte and the city with an aim to transition Charlotte to a circular economy. 

Unlike our current globalized economy — a linear economy in which we extract resources, make products, use them and then throw them away — a circular economy hinges on extending the life cycle of products as long as possible. Everything gets reused with the goal being zero waste.

The Innovation Barn houses a combination of entrepreneurial businesses and zero-waste initiatives, and showcases several closed-loop systems as an example of what a circular economy could look like.

There’s also a taproom, local coffee kiosk and plastics lab that’s turning trash into new products. 

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Envision Charlotte made filament for 3D printers out of plastic takeout containers, which are not recyclable in Mecklenburg County. The filament was donated to organizations producing face shields for frontline medical workers. 

Amy Aussieker, executive director of Envision Charlotte, said that need has since died down and engineers at the Innovation Barn have found a new way to upcycle the material. 

The plastics lab is currently experimenting with turning the takeout containers — plus the plastic PakTech beer can carrier used for 4- and 6-packs at local breweries — into benches and bricks to build sheds and tiny homes.

Bricks made out of recycled takeout containers and beer can carriers
The Innovation Barn is making these bricks out of takeout containers and beer can carriers. (Courtesy of Envision Charlotte)

Residents on the south side of the city can still donate their washed black and clear clamshell takeout containers to the Innovation Barn’s plastics lab using receptacles at the barn and the South End Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. 

On the bottom of the black containers, there must be a #5 “PP” material identifier triangle, Aussieker said.

As of Nov. 11, five tons of plastic takeout containers and 16,000 PakTech can carriers weighing 350 pounds have been diverted from the landfill through these initiatives.

“All of this will be from plastic currently destined for the landfill in Charlotte. If it comes to the barn, it gets a new life,” Aussieker said. “And if you don’t need your bench anymore, you literally just grind it up again and make a new product.”

Other projects include weaving leftover shirts from Goodwill into acoustic sound panels for noisy restaurants and event spaces, which is helpful in diverting textiles from the landfills — an effort Aussieker said is critical due to the recent explosion of fast fashion.

So, now that we understand how it all works, one question remains: Can one person reducing their waste and recycling right really make a difference?

Aussieker says absolutely.

“This is the one thing that individuals can do around climate change,” she said. “They can’t do a lot around renewable energy. Yeah, you can put solar panels on your roof, you can electrify your fleet, but it’s still the energy source of where it’s coming from. But this gives people an opportunity to make a difference on our planet.”

In part two of this series, we examine the zero-waste lifestyle as a means to lessen our trash production by switching to sustainable alternatives and reevaluating our consumerism.

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One Comment

  1. This is absurdly disappointing. For recycling to work, it needs to be made easier–not more complicated. Out of all the places I’ve lived, Charlotte has been by far the most difficult to recycle in. I understand that the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of recycling seems to be in decline, but I also can’t help believe that an unwillingness to invest and develop it also is pushing all these requests.

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