Green Scene: Cross-purposes?

Empty boxes: Scattered cardboard during Dec. 31, the last day of the Westgate Recycling Center’s operation. While the city is piloting a new program to increase recycling, the center in bustling West Asheville has shut down. Photo by Jeff Tallman

You may have seen them around Asheville: new, bigger recycling bins, part of a pilot program aimed at making recycling easier and more convenient for city residents. And while the jury’s still out, city staff report promising results so far.

Meanwhile, over at the Westgate recycling center, piles of recyclables, relics of the holiday season, awaited processing on Dec. 31, the facility’s final day of operation. Even as the city explores new ways to encourage recycling, the system is losing a major site, right in bustling West Asheville.

To some, it might seem like one step forward, one step back. And in a city that’s typically enthusiastic about all things green, recycling can often seem surprisingly difficult. Even within the city limits, a variety of departments and private contractors handle waste pickup; thus, residents of one downtown building might have convenient recycling with bins provided by the city, while their neighbors up the street must sort and transport their recyclables to some distant drop-off point.

Last fiscal year, Asheville’s various city-sponsored programs collected an estimated 14.9 million pounds of recyclables, and roughly 80 percent of residents participated in the curbside collection program, the city reports.

A messy business

The Westgate center was operated by GDS Asheville through a joint contract with the city and Buncombe County. But the property owners refused to extend the lease, triggering the Dec. 31 closure.

“As usual, the recycling center was a beehive of activity this morning,” Xpress staffer Jeff Tallman, who used the facility regularly, noted on its final day. “In some cases, the bins had been serviced, but surrounding piles of material were left to soak in the mud. I don’t blame the owners of this property for letting the agreement expire: No one in their right mind would want this mess in their backyard. If [GDS] would have at least assigned a person to pick up around the bins for a few minutes a day, this situation could have been a lot more presentable.”

GDS did not respond to requests for comment.

Buncombe County has four other recycling points: the landfill in Alexander, the transfer station on Hominy Creek Road, plus two run by Curbside Management on Merrimon Avenue and North Woodfin Street.

“We’re encouraging residents to use one of those alternate locations,” notes Wendy Simmons, the city’s solid waste manager, adding that a survey conducted by the city found that more county than city residents were using the Westgate location.

Nonetheless, she concedes, “The more recycling options, the better.” An alternate site may be developed in the future, says Simmons. In the meantime, “We have a resident base here that’s very motivated: I think they’re going to find a way to recycle.”

Positive feedback

City Council approved the pilot program in August, targeting 700 homes in the Burton Street, Norwood Park, Parkway Forest and Park Avenue/The Views neighborhoods. Residents simply place all recyclables in the new, bigger bins, with no need for sorting.

The estimated annual cost is $5,000, which staff hopes will be offset by reduced landfill fees. The program is part of a broader waste-reduction campaign that also includes better coordination and providing more recycling bins at events such as Bele Chere. In addition, the city is considering accepting more types of plastics, but any recycled materials the city couldn’t sell would end up in the landfill, increasing tipping fees.

“We’ve had some really positive feedback about [the pilot program],” says Simmons, adding, “The residents will continue to use the 95-gallon carts, and we’ll continue to check in and monitor the issues and successes they’ll have with those.”

At this writing, the city is in the final stages of collecting data, including user surveys and quantifying how much waste participating households produced. The next step is analyzing that data. Considering Council’s initial enthusiasm, it’s possible the new carts could be provided citywide.

Nonetheless, some apartments and other residences are served by private waste companies other than Curbside Management, a city contractor.

“It’s a mixed bag,” acknowledges Simmons. “Anyplace that has city trash service, we’ll service with recycling. We also have some residences that handle trash through someone else but handle recycling with the city. But we have some large apartment complexes that aren’t contracting with the city, they’re using a private contractor, so they contract recycling out as well.”

“We’re aware it’s a process that we need to constantly improve,” she concludes. “Ashevilleans want more, more, more when it comes to recycling. They want more locations and want us to add more things to that list. We have highly motivated residents that want to recycle as much as possible.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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