Dear Curbie

Sorting it out: Mixed recycling gets separated at the Curbie plant. Here, Curbie President Barry Lawson shows off some of the goods. Photos by Max Cooper

Santa, shmanta. Sure, the big guy is great at unloading gifts. But you might also notice that his little “green” elves wrap that stuff in tons of paper, plastic and cardboard. And does he ever come back with his sleigh to recycle all that trash? Not even once.

So this year, we decided to spotlight one of the holiday season’s unsung heroes: local recycling company Curbside Management (or Curbie, for short). Located just north of Beaver Lake and a few dozen feet past the old train tracks, the company’s 54,000-square-foot headquarters houses everything from offices and loading bays to the enormous, blue-and-yellow machine that sorts more than 16,000 tons of recyclables each year from a half-dozen or more Western North Carolina counties.

While we were there, we thought we’d get to the bottom of a few of our readers’ most frequently asked (or most wondered about, anyway). So forget those letters to Santa: Whether it’s love, plastics or not shooting your eye out, we’ve got all the answers you need to keep the holidays merry and green.

My new boyfriend throws everything into the recycling bin, even stuff he’s not sure is recyclable. (Like his used paper napkins — Yuck!). He says it’s better to be safe than sorry, and that y’all will sort it out. But I say he’s doing more harm than good. Who’s right here? (And if it’s me, is this enough grounds to dump him? He also listens to Yanni.)
— Almost Single in Fairview

’Tis the season to start looking for a new beau, ASIF. According to Curbie President Barry Lawson, throwing everything into the recycling bin (if you live in Asheville) or blue bag (if you’re outside the city limits) definitely does more harm than good.

“[Contaminants] drive up the cost of the program,” he explains. “It takes up volume [in the trucks], so we have to use more fuel getting it to our location here. It takes more time sorting it. And it means more landfill costs. So the more contaminates we have coming in here, the more we have to charge for our service.”

Your boyfriend might think he’s being a Good Samaritan, ASIF. But if he’s tossing things like paper plates or plastic bags in the bins, all he’s really doing is making someone else down the line have to pick out his trash. The moral here: Unless you know that something can be recycled, don’t feel guilty about throwing it in the trash. (For more on what Curbie currently accepts, see box, “Sorting It All Out.”)

“I’ve heard it said, ‘I’ll just put it in there, and they’ll find something to do with it,’” says Lawson. “We would love to find something to do with it, but we have to have someone on the other end who’s willing to take that material and make it into a product.”

Call us crazy, ASIF, but we have a pretty good feeling no one out there wants your boyfriend’s dirty napkins. And that goes double for his Yanni CDs. Those will have to be disposed of in the usual manner — tossed in the three-for-$1 bin at your nearest record store, right next to all those Enya and Rusted Root albums.

Is there any particular reason we’re not supposed to recycle a plastic bottle with the cap screwed back on?
— Raising a Litter Per Hour in Enka

Great question, RALPHIE. According to Lawson, yes, there’s actually a darn good reason.

Remember as a kid when you used to jump on an empty 2-liter bottle to see how far you could pop the cap? Well, instead of a 60-pound kid, picture using an industrial baling machine that weighs close to a ton.

“You can imagine when you take a bottle with the lid on it, what happens if there’s air inside and you apply pressure,” Lawson says. “We’re applying huge pressure in that baler, and sometimes, with all that pressure, occasionally it will shoot a lid out.”

And, man, when he says “shoot,” he ain’t kidding. Sitting upstairs in Lawson’s office, we heard a loud “bang!” through the plate-glass window overlooking the plant. What was it? A little plastic bottle cap bulleting two stories toward the ceiling — it was like an episode of MythBusters.

Thankfully, no one at Curbie has been injured by a bottle-cap missile so far.

How green is Curbie?
— Proud Recycler in Upper Skyland

Well, PRIUS, interestingly, Curbie doesn’t actually recycle anything.

“We’re just strictly sorting,” says Lawson. “So we really don’t have any environmental concerns.”

With no pollution from melted-down materials to worry about, Curbie’s only real carbon footprint is the electricity used to run the facility and the fuel the collection trucks consume. And they’ve been considering a switch to more environmentally friendly vehicles.

“We have looked at some of the equipment that is out there,” Lawson reveals, “and we’re trying to look at other people that have gone in front of us. I’m sure at some point, when the timing is right, we would follow that front.”

I take the time to sort paper into the blue bin and bottles and cans into the green bin, but I swear I just saw the Curbie guy dump everything together in the back of his truck. What, are they just taking everything to the landfill?
— Want The Facts

No conspiracy here, WTF. Actually, what you’re seeing is just the slow (and careful) march of modernization. About a year ago, Curbie upgraded to a new, single-stream processing system that has no problem sorting it all out.

“We have the capabilities here to sort all material that comes in,” Lawson explains. “Some of the material the city is collecting comes in mixed together.”

You’ve probably noticed those big blue recycling carts that popped up a few months back in neighborhoods like Norwood Park and Burton Street. They’re part of a pilot program the city started to test the waters for single-stream recycling in Asheville. Rather than having to sort their recyclables, residents in those neighborhoods just toss it all into a single 95-gallon cart that looks exactly like the ones you throw your trash in, only it’s blue.

The pilot program has been a pretty big success. Wendy Simmons, the city’s solid-waste manager, says participation increased by 7 percent and total weight of recyclables by 53 percent. “We’ve also received very positive feedback from the participating residents,” she writes.

Asheville is tentatively planning to take the single-stream program citywide, perhaps in the spring. Until then, says Lawson, residents can quit worrying about sorting their recyclables. Just do him a favor and make sure to put a lid on the bin to keep the paper from getting wet.

What, exactly, happens to all the stuff in the trucks when it gets to the Curbie facility? Give me the whole scoop.
— Curious In Asheville

Sure thing, CIA. You might want to sit back and relax, though, because things can get a bit complicated. But we’ll try to keep it simple.

Suppose you’re an empty aluminum can: We’ll call you Pabst.

So far, you’ve had a pretty good life. Chilling with friends, cross-country road trips and, most recently, the giddy thrill of hanging out by the fire with a new flame (your first kiss!), her warm hand wrapped around your shoulders. Ah, to be young again.

Of course, that was before she crushed your fragile little heart and tossed you aside like tomorrow’s trash.

So now you find yourself dumped, literally, on a concrete floor in the Curbie plant with a bunch of other recyclables. You’re cold. You’re lonely. You’re feeling just a wee bit used. And you’re starting to think, “That’s it — life is over; I’ll never find a love like that again.”

But don’t fret, little friend. Because just beyond that enormous, blue-and-yellow sorting machine, a whole new life awaits.

Think of the sorting machine as a kind of ropes course for recyclables. The metal behemoth is basically a series of conveyor belts, balers and hoppers designed to pull out different materials at particular points along the way. First, a bulldozer pushes you and your new posse onto the first ramp; when you reach the top, a half-dozen Curbie employees are there to greet you. These men and women are the first line of defense against the dreaded contaminants. Like Las Vegas magicians, they move their hands in a blur, grabbing and batting plastic bags and other interlopers into different holes in the center of the conveyor belt.

Not being trash, though, you just keep on truckin’ to the glass breaker, an ominously named machine that looks as frightening as it sounds. The horizontal screen uses rows of churning, steel knives to crush and wrench out all the glass. But you ain’t scared: You’re Pabst, man. You’ve won a blue ribbon for tougher stuff than this. Into the mouth of the monster you go. “Au revoir, empty Dewar’s bottle!” you cry. “Au revoir!”

When you reach the other side, you and what’s left of your dwindling, motley crew tumble onto the next challenge. This one’s an ascending ramp of spinning rubber discs — sort of like a gentler-looking cousin of the glass breaker — that pulls up all the paper and drops it onto its own conveyor belt, where Curbie employees will sort it into different grades. Thanks to gravity, the plastic and metal cans — i.e., you — tumble down onto a separate belt.

And this is where your journey ends, Pabst. As you glide down the final conveyor belt, another gaggle of Curbie staffers furiously picks out the plastic and tosses it into the appropriate hoppers. Within seconds, all that’s left is you metals. But then you pass under a huge magnet and — phwoop! — that soup can right next to you leaps up and disappears. Before you even have time to think, you too start to feel a tug. That’s because you and the last of your stalwart crew are now entering an eddy-current separator, which uses magnetism to repel all nonferrous metals. Just like that, an invisible force throws you and the rest of the aluminum cans off the belt and into your own hopper.

Later, you’ll be crushed and bundled into a 60”-by-44”-by-36” bale. After that, you’ll be loaded onto a truck and shipped off to an aluminum company that will melt you down and turn you into a whole new can. In as little as 60 days, you’ll be back on the grocery-store shelf, ready to find love again.

Go get ’em, Pabst.

So if Curbie isn’t doing the actual recycling, who is? And what does the stuff get made into?
— Graying West Asheville Reincarnator

A bunch of different companies buy Curbie’s presorted recyclables, GWAR. Here’s a quick list of the most common uses:
• Most of the plastic bottles are sold to a company in Fayetteville that converts them into clear flake used in making carpets. The rest go to a South Carolina company that turns them into fleece and other clothing materials.
• Most of the paper is recycled into paper again, including products such as toilet paper, tissues, paper towels or mulch for hydroseeding.
• Aluminum cans are sold to Anheuser-Busch to be turned back into beverage cans.
• Glass is used to make fiberglass insulation or more glass bottles.

Who is Curbie really? Is he single?
— Desperate in Biltmore Square

If by “single” you mean “single-stream,” then yes, he is (rim shot, please).

Actually, DIBS, it all started with an Ashevillean named David Johnson. Back in 1991, the city didn’t have a recycling program to speak of. Realizing that residents were itching for an easier way to recycle than hauling it all to the nearest drop-off, Johnson created Curbside Management Inc. He then began knocking on doors around the region, selling subscriptions to his new service.

Six years later, the city of Asheville decided to launch a curbside-recycling program. Curbie won the first contract, and they’ve been doing it ever since.

Since then, Curbie has expanded beyond collection into a full-fledged materials-processing company. Their north Asheville plant, built in 2003, now houses about 36 staffers and a fleet of 10 trucks.

A little help here. I know I can’t recycle all plastics, but which ones can I recycle? Do I go by the numbers on the bottom or by the shape? I’m always so dang confused.
— Annoyed Recycler Grabbing Hair

Good news, ARGH — your life is about to get a whole lot easier. Curbie recently opened its doors to a smorgasbord of plastics they were never able to accept before: everything from yogurt cups and margarine tubs to deli containers and plastic pill bottles.

So whatever rules you heard in the past, just forget ’em. Curbie now accepts all plastics Nos. 1 through 7 (check the symbol on the bottom), which is pretty much every type of plastic you’re likely to find.

Why the big change? Well, it’s all about supply and demand.

“It’s been something we’ve been working on,” Lawson reveals. “As long as there’s a sustaining reuse for that material, we can add it into our program.”

That’s not always easy. Just finding a company that has the right equipment and is willing to accept a particular material is hard enough. On top of that, those markets sometimes come and go pretty quickly.

“The hard part for us is that we have to find a consistent outlet,” he explains. “Because we’re turning on 30,000 households to a material, so once we start, we can’t all of a sudden turn around and say, ‘Oh well, that market disappeared.’ We have to make sure that material can be consistently recycled. But we’ve now tested [the plastics markets] long enough to know there is availability.”

And thanks to some new equipment, Curbie has also been able to add another previously banned material to the OK list recently: aseptic and gable-top containers (those waxed-cardboard orange juice, soymilk, chicken broth and Juicy Juice boxes). Which is huge.

“There’s very little from the grocery store that we now can’t recycle,” says Lawson, adding, “We’re excited about the change.”

I hear that Curbie is a private company. So if I understand this correctly, the city is paying Curbie to sell the things that we (the residents) give them for free?
— Cynic On Norwood

Essentially, yes. The city hires Curbie to collect our recyclables, which Curbie then sorts and sells to different companies. But it’s hardly a con, CON.

“We are a for-profit business,” says Lawson. “The city of Asheville put their contract up for bid roughly two-and-a-half years ago. A number of companies submitted bids, and we were the lowest. That’s one of the benefits we’ve been able to offer our clients — good value for their dollar spent.”

And while prices for certain metals might be good right now, things like paper and glass never bring in much.

“Aluminum is by far the most profitable item,” notes Lawson. “Of course, that’s the item we ship the least of: We’ll ship 50 loads of paper for every load of aluminum. It’s a combination of supply and demand, what [the material] is being made back into, how many people use that material, and how much transportation is involved to get it to where they process it.”

In the end, CON, it’s a win-win for Asheville (not to mention the environment). You and your neighbors get the convenience of having your recyclables picked up at your house, the city and county save money by having someone else do it and a local company like Curbie is able to make enough profit to stay in business while employing more than three dozen people. It also prolongs the life of the landfill, which will be very expensive to replace.

Can I recycle my Christmas tree?
— South Asheville Parent

You can, SAP, and you should. But Curbie has nothing to do with it. If you live in Asheville, it’s incredibly easy, as it’s part of the city’s regular brush-and-bagged-leaves collection service.

First, strip off all the lights, ornaments, tinsel and whatever else you put on it. Remove the tree from the stand, then drag it out to the curb. That’s it.

The city will come by and pick it up on your usual brush-and-bagged-leaves collection day (it alternates weeks, so check the city’s website if you’re unsure). The Christmas trees and all the rest will then be hauled to Hensons’ Mulch & More on Pond Road. There, they’ll be ground into mulch for sale to homeowners and landscapers.

Through Jan. 31, the Buncombe Country landfill will accept trees free of charge to be ground into mulch.

Wherever you live, this is a great way to keep thousands of trees out of the landfill while giving them a new mission. And just think, SAP: Come springtime, it just might be your old Christmas tree you’re spreading around your garden. Ah, the circle of life …

— Freelance writer Miles Britton lives in Asheville.

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2 thoughts on “Dear Curbie

  1. Rachel

    I jjust checked the county website and this is what it says about recycling plastic:

    “Plastic Bottles: Don’t worry about the number on the bottom. If the neck of the plastic container is smaller than the base, then it is recyclable. Please remove all lids.

    Butter tubs, take-out containers, frozen meal trays and anything else that doesn’t have a tapered neck cannot be recycled.”

    So who’s right? I live outside the city, in the county, but according to thr article that shouldn’t matter. Can I start recycling all numbers and shapes of plastic?

  2. mbritton

    Hi Rachel,

    Curbie only recently made the change to accepting all plastics 1-7, so it sounds like the Buncombe County website still has the old rules up. If you are on the blue bag system, then everything in the above article applies to you. Check the Curbie website (www.curbie.com) for details.

    Hope that helps!

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