Recycling is not a new concept; Charleston County has boasted a recycling program since the early 1990s. But making sure that recyclable material finds its way to the proper place is a continuing effort amid falling prices and increased costs.
“We’re trying to communicate that we want people to recycle, but we want them to recycle right,” says Christina Moskos, recycling coordinator for Charleston County Environmental Management. “We’ve seen increased numbers of contamination in our recycling stream, and that’s very costly to us.”
Although the county moved to a single-stream recycling program about five years ago, allowing residents and businesses to combine paper, aluminum, plastic, and glass recyclables into one container, there are still items that don’t belong.
“We see a lot of what we call ‘aspirational recycling,’ where people really think they’re doing the right thing by putting a certain item in their recycling bin,” says Moskos. “They think a hose pipe is made of plastic so they can put it in their recycling cart, but it creates problems all down the line. When in doubt, leave it out.”
However, there’s a fine line between helpfully educating the public and discouraging them from recycling at all. Chris Fisher, president and owner of Fisher Recycling, says that consumer education is the key to more, and better, participation.
“Education and convenience are always the big hurdle in the recycling world,” Fisher says. “It’s so hard. People dwell more on the negative than the positive.”
One negative aspect of recycling is the low price of fuel; currently, it’s cheaper to make “virgin plastic” than to recycle existing plastic. This has led to a shutdown of many facilities across the country, including in the Lowcountry.
Professor Frank L. Hefner, professor of economics at the College of Charleston, released a study in 2014 on the economic impact of recycling in South Carolina. The industry has created more than 54,000 jobs in the state, with an annual average wage of $40,203. While recycling boasts an estimated $13 billion annual economic impact, many facilities are still hurting.
“They’re finding that the sale of recyclable materials is not worth as much as it was six to seven years ago,” Hefner says. “It’s putting a strain on recycling centers.”
One of the centers under strain is Charleston’s own – their facility was closed in July 2015.
Hefner worries that while it may save money in the short term, the long-term effects could be negative for the area.
“It still might be a very good idea to have recycling centers, even though the re-sale value of the material is dropping, just to avoid getting it into the landfill,” he says. “These prices go in cycles. At some point, oil will go up in price again. You’d had to have your municipal recycling plant shut down, because it would be expensive to crank it up later.”
As for right now, all recyclables, roughly 12 truckloads a day, are sent to a facility in Horry County, 120 miles away. Although the materials are still recycled, the trek creates an additional environmental burden, to say nothing of the increased costs for the county.
Fisher has seen this as an opportunity to help the environment and to help the city save money. In March, his company switched to a glass-only collection for restaurant clients. They currently have a pilot program underway with DHEC and the Council of Governments to put out specially marked neon green bins for glass only.
“Every truckload that goes to Horry County, 20 percent of gross weight is glass,” Fisher says. “We’re trying to show the county if we work together and get the glass out of the single stream, how much we can save taxpayers.”
The biggest issue with recycling glass is the lack of bottlers to process it. The last processor in the state, in Spartanburg, recently closed. Fisher hopes that having a renewed, glass-intensive collection will lure new bottlers to the state.
“We have to prove it works,” he says. “We’re going to encourage large bottlers to come to the state and start processing glass here. If we can show we can collect it, they’ll take it.”
Until then, the glass that Fisher collects is re-used to make items such as countertops and backsplashes for his GlassEco product line. What he doesn’t use is sent to a bottler who makes new bottles out of recycled glass.
Nearly all of Fisher’s clients are restaurants and businesses; corporate recycling tends to be more lucrative, and more impactful, than individual home recycling.
Boeing is one Lowcountry facility to embrace a large-scale recycling program. Tony Soto, senior manager of environment, health and safety, was brought to the Charleston facility six years ago to help pilot the program. In April 2011, the company achieved zero-waste-to-landfill status and has maintained it ever since.
“All of our material is recycled one way or another, either direct recycling like cardboard and aluminum cans, to the remaining material that goes to waste-to-energy,” Soto says. “It’s another form of recycling, but it’s creating useful energy.”
Boeing’s ambitious and comprehensive recycling program came about because of…their 787 airplane? Soto explains that the 787 is different from other aircraft in that it has lower emissions and is a composite plane, lighter with less maintenance.
“It’s different, so we wanted to match our facilities to the airplane we were producing,” Soto says.
Truly, nothing is wasted. Boeing uses a highly segregated stream to collect recyclables in its break rooms and cafeterias. Soto says the company uses lots of signage and directions to make sure employees place their recyclable materials in the correct bins. That which can’t be recycled is placed in specially marked bins, which are taken to a facility that burns the trash to use either in a cement factory or to produce steam to heat buildings or produce electricity.
Food scraps are compiled in a separate container to be sent to Charleston County Environmental Management’s 28-acre compost facility, the first of its kind in the state. The facility collects commercial food waste from restaurants, grocery stores, and cafeterias, which is then mixed with yard waste and allowed to compost. Not only is the biodegradable material kept out of the landfill, but it has also provided an income stream for Charleston County, who sells the compost to everyone from golf course designers to the SCDOT to local food producers.
“You hear about farm-to-table all the time, but we have kind of switched that around and call it our ‘table-to-farm’ program,” says Moskos. “Food waste from the table at the restaurant goes to the compost facility, gets made into compost that we then sell to local farmers to help grow crops locally, the same crops they sell to the local restaurants.”
As with its other recycling counterparts, food waste recycling takes education, and lots of it.
“There’s a lot that goes into it that the public doesn’t realize,” says Moskos. “Our job is to try to educate them.”