Why it matters that many of us in Charlotte are bad at recycling

Why it matters that many of us in Charlotte are bad at recycling
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There’s a good chance that you’re recycling wrong.

It’s OK. Many of us do. Even those who try their best to be good to the environment and get rid of waste responsibly. In Mecklenburg County, sometimes it’s hard to know how to do that.

Why it matters: Charlotte wants to become a more sustainable city even as it grows — and recycling is one important way to cut down on the generation of greenhouse gases. But inefficient recycling practices are costly, and they strain an already busy recycling system.

  • Charlotte is expected to add roughly 385,000 new residents over the next two decades. Part of the challenge with all this growth is that people come from all over, meaning they may be unfamiliar with how recycling works in Charlotte, says Jeff Smithberger, the county’s solid waste management director.

By the numbers: About 22% of what the local solid waste services brings in from its recycling collections cannot actually be recycled. The daily grind of sifting through the roughly 400 tons of junk every day falls on about 70 employees who handle manual sorting, plus several machines.

  • “Wishful recycling” (trying to recycle stuff that should go instead in the landfill) is on the rise as they city grows. It costs Mecklenburg County more than $1.9 million per year.
  • The county’s in the midst of a seven-year $55 million upgrade of its solid waste infrastructure, Smithberger says. That will result in fewer human sorters, but more automated sorting systems (robots) and more facilities.

“We feel good about ourselves as Americans because we recycle products. But they’re often not actually being recycled,” Smithberger says.

Flashback: Charlotte implemented a new method of recycling called “single-stream” in the summer of 2010. In single-stream, residents can put all of their recycling in one 96-gallon green container instead of sorting it into separate bins.

  • Right away, single-stream recycling was popular. Charlotte residents recycled 30% more paper, glass, plastic and metal in the first year of the new system than they had before single-stream was available, the Observer reported in August 2011.
  • What’s more, the amount of waste sent to landfills decreased by about 18,000 tons, or 7%, saving $274,000 in disposal costs, per the Observer.

Yes, but: Single-stream is partly to blame for the current snarl-ups in our recycling system. People assume they can toss just about anything into the recycling, and that somehow it’ll be repurposed, Smithberger says.

“People think that anything made with a piece of plastic is recyclable. That isn’t so.”

It’s not always convenient, but you sometimes have to make multiple trips to get rid of things, Smithberger says.

  • For instance, many people want to recycle items like electronics or appliances — but shouldn’t do so curbside. Those have to go to one of the city’s four full-service drop-off centers.
  • Clothing and shoes can’t be recycled curbside, either. Take those instead to a local Goodwill or Salvation Army.

“People want one-stop shopping,” Smithberger says.

What you’re probably recycling wrong: Meg Fencil, the director of engagement and impact for the local nonprofit Sustain Charlotte, says two of the most common recycling mistakes in Charlotte are:

  • Trying to recycle plastic grocery bags.
  • Bagging recyclables in plastic bags before placing them in a green container.

Among some of the common items that cannot be recycled curbside:

  • Diapers
  • Plastic bags
  • Tide Pods
  • Clam shells
  • Capri Sun containers
  • Contaminated food containers (from products like yogurt and peanut butter)
  • Shredded paper
  • Plastic food trays and cups
  • Takeout food containers
  • Styrofoam
  • Light bulbs
  • Wire hangers
  • Anything made of plastic No. 6 (like egg containers and plastic cutlery)

Here are six categories of items you can recycle curbside:

  • Plastic bottles and jugs with necks
  • Cardboard (including clean pizza boxes)
  • Aluminum cans
  • Cartons (clean, from products like milk and juice)
  • Paper
  • Glass bottles

Of note: For plastic bottles, solid waste services staffers ask people to keep the caps on. That’s because if they’re off, they can fall through the equipment and damage the machinery.

  • The list of stuff you can’t recycle is far longer than what you can recycle. The county has a breakdown on its website with further details.

There are other plastics that people shouldn’t try to recycle either, even if their labels contains words like “recycled material.” Nadine Ford, a senior environmental specialist for the county, calls this “greenwashing.”

  • If retailers make a product sound good and sustainable, customers are going to want to buy it, she says. It’s a marketing tool.

“I’m going to feel good as a consumer when I put it in the bin,” Ford says. Part of what occupies much of Ford’s time is fielding calls and emails from county residents about recycling.

There are some places that’ve changed their laws to make the recycling process run more smoothly. Earlier this year, for instance, Virginia enacted a law banning styrofoam cups and takeout containers, starting in 2025.

Sustain Charlotte often works with the county on recycling education and outreach. Over the summer, the organization issued a memo requesting that residents take glass bottles and jars to the yellow bins at one of the county’s full service drop off centers.

  • This isn’t mandatory. It’s just a way to help out, as separating glass is costly and difficult.

    Want to learn more? The county offers free virtual teaching events about recycling in Charlotte. Here are some upcoming events:

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