There’s a sustainable soirée happening in the big blue bins at the end of Asheville driveways every week. The former beer cans, shoeboxes, spray bottles and cream cheese containers are celebrating the first step toward their next, reinvented life as a recycled material.
Yes, the mixed recyclables you indiscriminately toss in the commingled blue bins are actually being recycled, not trashed. There’s a whole industry dedicated to it.
Municipal recycling has come a long way in recent years, as many cities, Asheville included, move toward “single-stream” recycling, which allows residents to collect unsorted recyclables in one receptacle to ease — and increase — participation.
Asheville joined the single-stream movement in 2011 with City Council’s approval of the Zero Waste Asheville program, intended to drastically reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill. Big blue roll carts were distributed to homeowners in the city in 2012, a convenience that led to a 25 percent increase in recycled materials collected in the first year of the program.
That success has continued, as Asheville recycled 590 pounds per household per year in fiscal year 2016-17, the highest rate among North Carolina cities and a 74 percent increase over the city’s rate before the 2011 transition to cart-based single-stream recycling.
Rob Taylor, head of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Recycling and Materials Management Section, calls Asheville’s curbside recycling program one of the highest-performing in the state year after year.
Efficiencies put in place by the city’s contracted recycler, Curbside Management, deserve some of the credit for Asheville’s performance. The company picks up and sorts recycling at its North Woodfin Avenue materials recovery facility for Asheville, Woodfin, Weaverville and Fletcher. The facility is also the destination for recyclables collected from homes in unincorporated Buncombe County and much of Western North Carolina, even stretching into Tennessee and South Carolina.
Curbie grows up
Curbside Recycling began as a one-man show in 1991, when the then-owner drove around collecting recyclables in his pickup truck. The company grew enough to get the first contract to handle residential recyclables for the city of Asheville in 1997 and became a materials recovery facility in 2003. The company has made numerous upgrades to the facility since current owners Barry and Nancy Lawson bought the business in 2006, including adding elements that lower their dependence on hand sorters and decrease the amount they send to the landfill, says Nancy Lawson.
Today, after a truck dumps a load of commingled material at Curbside’s warehouse facility, a staff-operated front-end loader piles material into a hopper. From there, a steady flow of material rides a conveyor belt to a presorting area.
A handful of staffers form the first line of defense against unwanted items entering the sorting system. They pull out things that don’t belong, like plastic bags or general trash, plus larger recyclables such as cardboard boxes.
Next, the mixed material falls down on iron discs that chew up the heaviest substance: glass. The shards fall into a separate bin, eliminating the need for hand sorters to touch the sharp pieces.
Below the iron discs, an air jet blows lighter objects like bottle caps and paper that have fallen through the discs along with the glass back onto the mixed-materials line.
Spinning rubber wheels send paper to its own conveyor belt, where hand sorters remove items like cardboard and “chipboard” (the stiffer product that makes up cereal boxes), which shouldn’t go into a paper baler.
Below the paper line, workers ply the container line. One sorter picks off milk jugs, while another grabs water bottles and 2-liter bottles. The workers toss the materials into huge cages.
The container sorting line runs atop an elevated platform. From the observation deck in the Curbside office, it appears to be the most active spot in the facility. Sorters toss jugs and bottles in one direction and fling off other items that don’t belong. Plastic bags hover in the air like jellyfish floating in the ocean. The conveyor belt moves fast.
“Let’s say there’s so many containers that our guys can’t pick them fast enough. The [containers] go through that system and then they fall into a big pile on the ground at the end of the line,” Nancy says.
Past the container line, a giant magnet snatches up steel cans, and an air current shoots aluminum cans into containers. Every sorted item type is eventually baled and piled up to be placed in the appropriate truck for shipment to an end user.
Any items that go unsorted are looped back to the beginning of the line by a front-end loader.
It’s quite an operation, with about 30 of the company’s 57 employees working on site at any time.
Manufacturers that use recycled material are the economic engine for all municipal and county recycling facilities, and Curbside sends its sorted recyclables to companies and distribution centers all over the Southeast. Anything within a five- to six-hour drive of Curbside is in range.
“We have lots of vendors,” Lawson says. “We are constantly looking for new markets. Our goal is not to take anything to the landfill here. That’s our job, to recycle as much as possible. It’s our business.”
Some items have more uses than others. Milk jugs, for example, are made from a pliable plastic and can be made into other plastic items like garbage cans or toys, making them more valuable. Milk jug plastic is at the beginning of its useful life. The more brittle the plastic, the nearer it is to the end of its lifespan, Lawson says.
Plastic bottles and 2-liter jugs often head to carpet manufacturers or T-shirt makers. Cardboard becomes more cardboard.
Paper recyclers turn wastepaper into a pulp, combining the fibers to create new paper. If the fibers are cut too short, however, processors have less ability to weave the material into new paper. Shredded documents, Lawson says, can only be turned into toilet paper.
Lawson understands that some documents should be shredded for security reasons, but people shouldn’t feel the need to “overshred,” she warns. Employees sign a nondisclosure agreement about such items, and there’s no way someone could snatch sensitive documents once they hit the recycling facility, she says.
While shipping glass to manufacturers actually costs Curbside more than it receives for the material, aluminum is a valuable commodity.The company ships a tractor-trailer full of aluminum every four to six weeks, while it ships one to two trucks of glass daily. Paper is the most common recyclable in Asheville, with three to four trucks of baled paper leaving Curbside daily, Lawson says.
“We survive on pure volume,” she adds.
Inevitably, Curbside receives material the company can’t recycle.
Asheville’s contamination rate, or the percentage of what city residents throw in their big blue bins that should go to the landfill, is about 5 percent, according to Curbside. That’s a pretty decent percentage compared to other municipal recycling facilities, says Barry Lawson, but it still costs Curbside, and in turn Asheville, a good chunk of money.
Curbside limits its own landfill expenses by adopting an active sorting process for nonrecyclable trash, Barry says.
The stuff Curbside sends to the landfill has been actively picked off the conveyor belts by employees. Curbside loops everything that sorters miss the first time through — which often includes both recyclables and trash — back to the beginning of the system to limit the number of truckloads diverted to the landfill.
“It costs us money to take stuff to the landfill. It costs us labor and efficiencies. Trust us to know that we are constantly looking for new homes for things that we can recycle. Because we don’t want to take things to the landfill — it costs us money,” Nancy Lawson says.
Plastic bags are by far the biggest problem at Curbside and similar facilities across the country.
Bags get tangled in gears and equipment, sometimes forcing the facility to shut down for hours at a time for servicing, Barry Lawson says.
“About every day, if not more than once a day, we literally have to shut down the machines and crawl up and cut the bags off some of our equipment. [The sorters] try to pull as much as they can out, but it’s just a nuisance,” Nancy says.
Stores such as Ingles and Publix accept plastic bags for recycling.
In addition to the danger they pose to equipment, the bags pick up too much dirt in a single-stream recycling facility to maintain their value for manufacturers.
Even worse than single bags are the “onion” bags, bags stuffed with bags that are stuffed with bags. Or more problematic still, bags that contain a mix of bags and other materials. It takes too much time for sorters to pull apart bags that contain garbage or and one or two recyclables, Barry says.
In that instance, unfortunately, it all goes to the landfill, he says.
Curbside also doesn’t like getting black or opaque bags they can’t see through. That’s when the weird stuff comes out.
They’ve gotten dead animals before, as well as hazardous things they don’t want their people sorting through, Nancy says.
“At some point you just have to say, ‘Throw it away,’” she says.
Between landfill tipping fees, unanticipated servicing of equipment and time spent ridding the lines of the industry’s most notorious “tanglers,” Barry Lawson estimates Curbside spends $150,000 to $200,000 a year just on plastic bags, costs they ultimately pass on to contracts with entities such as the city of Asheville.
One of the contributors to Curbside’s bag bind is Buncombe County’s “Blue Bag” program.
Residents in Buncombe County pay Waste Pro directly for trash service, which also includes recycling pickup. Waste Pro takes the recyclables is collects in Buncombe to Curbside for sorting. But instead of the big blue bins distributed to residents in the city of Asheville, Buncombe County asks residents to place recyclables in a company-provided bin (which carries an additional cost) or transparent blue or clear bags.
“You’ll have to ask Buncombe County why they decided to go with plastic bags,” Nancy Lawson says, a hint of frustration in her voice.
Buncombe County Solid Waste Director Chip Gingles, who says he’s only been in his position for six months, says the decision to go with blue bags was made when the county’s 10-year franchise agreement with Waste Pro was negotiated. That arrangement expires at the end of 2019, he says.
While county businesses may contract with other vendors for trash pickup, county residents must either pay Waste Pro or deal with their refuse themselves, explains Michael Frue, senior staff attorney for Buncombe County. According to Frue, county staff will begin examining the franchise agreement soon in preparation for releasing a new request for proposals in 2019.
Gingles says residents who sign up for Waste Pro service can put their recyclables in any approved container instead of blue or clear plastic bags.
But on the recycling page of the county’s website, recyclables are often referred to as “blue bag recyclables,” and the instructions even tell residents where they can buy the approved blue bags.
Those guidelines were originally intended to help distinguish trash from recyclables at roadside pickup points for Waste Pro, Gingles says, and the county worked with Waste Pro to come up with that policy eight or nine years ago.
“That is definitely one of the things we will look at when we draw up a new contract (in 2019),” Gingles says.
In 2014, Asheville City Council passed a resolution promising to reduce the waste going to the landfill by 50 percent by 2035, based on a 2010 baseline. As of 2016, the city had reduced landfilled waste by about 7 percent, so some progress has been made, says Asheville Solid Waste Manager Jes Foster. That improvement — which saw waste decline even as Asheville’s population has grown — has saved the city more than $353,000 since 2011 in landfill tipping fees, she notes.
However, a 2015 audit revealed that 18 percent of waste sent to the landfill was recyclable, so there is still work to do, Foster says.
Foster says the city’s relationship with Curbside has been instrumental in improving the city’s landfill diversion rates. The city paid Curbside $1.225 million for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, which was the seventh year of a 10-year contract.
Increased curbside recycling is leading to literal growth at the company, where plans are in the works to grow its current 5,500-square-foot facility by 33 percent. That’s a relief for Nancy, who says the warehouse is bursting at the seams after the winter holidays and a shortage of tractor-trailer trucks in the wake of a busy hurricane season in Texas and Florida.
Another player in Asheville’s relatively successful recycling game is environmental nonprofit Asheville Greenworks, which gathers unique recyclers at its quarterly Hard2Recycle events.
A number of partner companies and nonprofits congregate at the GreenWorks-hosted events in different areas of Buncombe County and Asheville five times a year to collect items that can’t be recycled by Curbside.
Biltmore Iron and Metal Co. recycles metal, batteries, electronics and appliances, The Open Box Moving Solutions recycles Styrofoam and packing peanuts, One Click Fix accepts computers, and the national TerraCycle program recycles personal hygiene products. Curbside, Asheville Humane Society, Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity and others also participate in these events.
For information on upcoming Hard2Recycle events, visit avl.mx/4k2.
While Asheville bests other cities its size in its recycling habits, that doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made. Ultimately, all of the players share the same goal: Keeping junk out of the landfill.
“Asheville is very good at recycling. We live in a beautiful place, and we’re trying to take care of our beautiful environment, one can at a time,” Nancy Lawson says.