The Other Side of the Mountain

For far too long, the need to feed the family forced me to live in a distant place. Although it was south of the Mason-Dixon Line, it wasn’t the real South (which my wife and I moved back to as soon as we could). In that distant place, however, we learned many lessons. One was how to get folks to recycle effectively and efficiently.

At first there was a single, privately run recycling center in the county seat, about 10 miles from our home. Once in a very great while, we would load the car or truck with recyclables and haul them there, but it was just too easy to throw the stuff away. (Can you find the recycling center behind Asheville Pizza & Brewing? Do you know how far that is from Barnardsville?)

Then the schools started teaching our children about recycling, and they in turn began pressuring us to sort our “stuff” into separate containers. By that time, the county landfill had special bins for recycling, so whenever we had a load of paper and plastic and glass, it was off to the landfill, where they took recyclable material at no charge.

Next, both the contracted trash haulers and the city government started picking up garbage and recyclables once a week (in a clean truck, I would add). Since there was no tipping fee for recycling, the contract guys also benefited. It was in their best interest to haul as much recyclable material (which cost them nothing to dump) and as little garbage (which they had to pay to dump) as possible. And for homeowners, it was easy. Sure, we now had two trash cans instead of one; but for most of us, that was no big deal.

By the time we left the northern South in 1999, our county was generating roughly equal amounts (by weight) of garbage and recyclables. Think of it — recycling had halved the amount of garbage, which means we had doubled the life of the landfill. And given the high price of land, that meant a substantial savings of our tax dollars.

Fast-forward to Asheville, where recycling appears to be working marginally at best. According to Asheville-Buncombe VISION’s “Community Progress Report 2005,” the city’s waste stream consists of 76 percent trash and only 24 percent recyclables (also by weight). Yet the report notes that Asheville residents recycle a larger percentage of their trash than any other municipality in Buncombe County. The report goes on to say: “Countywide, the recycling rate is 11.5 percent, which is one of the highest in the state. Statewide, the recycling rate is 4.2 percent.” Folks, that’s pretty dismal!

Yet city residents pay extra for curbside recycling ($5 per month, added to our water bills; and those who recycle more than the allotted two bins’ worth per family must pay an additional fee). We also pay for landfills, since we, too, live in Buncombe County. And the question is, how soon will we have to buy another piece of very pricey land onto which to pitch our waste?

Buncombe County residents outside the city face a different situation. Their trash haulers are required to pick up recyclables for free if they’re put out in blue bags. But some folks resent having to buy the bags (which are themselves trash), and a number of county residents have told me they’ve seen recyclables pitched in with the trash (though a GDS spokesperson assured me that their trucks have two compartments: a big one for trash and a small one for recyclables. In any case, the data attest that as a group, county residents are not doing a whole lot of recycling.

Even with disincentives to increase their recycling, Asheville residents outperform those in other Buncombe County communities, and Buncombe is one of the top recyclers among North Carolina’s 100 counties. So let’s put our heads together and figure out how to push Asheville forward, bring the rest of Buncombe County along with us, and then show North Carolina how it’s done! If Asheville can be the leader and the teacher in so many other areas, surely we can learn to do it in recyling as well!

In part II, I’ll talk about what doesn’t work, what does — and how we can tell if we’re making progress.

[George Keller is an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA. Besides his involvement with Asheville-Buncombe VISION, he's the webmaster for RiverLink and also serves on the Asheville Civic Center Commission.]

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