“Recycling is a pain in the butt, to be honest,” Livingston Apartments resident Curtis Hadden said on a recent trash pickup day, while waiting for the school bus with his son amid a freezing wind. “I mean, it’s good and you should do it, I guess, but there’s too much sorting. This can go in there but not that, you know? I just like to get stuff out of my way in one can. My girl likes it, though, and my son, he does it all the time. He’s always getting on me, too, saying, ‘No, Dad, you can’t put it in there: It goes in the blue one.’”
Those and similar concerns helped derail a 2013 attempt to bring recycling to selected city public housing developments, which was soon overwhelmed by contaminated materials. But while Hadden apparently still has his doubts, another such program is showing more promising results so far.
The new effort, launched last Oct. 1, was designed to be more convenient for residents and to include significant educational and outreach components. And to date, the numbers show a nearly 23 percent drop in the total weight of solid waste collected in the pilot area since the program began, notes Amber Weaver, the city’s chief sustainability officer.
That’s “a rate of recycling similar to what the city as a whole is participating at,” says Dawn Chavez, executive director of Asheville GreenWorks. “That’s really exciting!”
Getting it right
The pilot program — a joint effort by the Asheville Housing Authority, its Residents Council, Asheville GreenWorks, various city agencies and other stakeholders — was rolled out last fall in the Livingston and Erskine-Walton developments. And while the prior attempt had simply installed big recycling bins next to the existing trash dumpsters without adequate public education, the new program gives participants access to the same kind of service that’s available to other city residents.
Funded by a grant from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, the current pilot enables residents of the targeted communities to recycle plastics Nos. 1-7, cardboard (including both boxes and cartons), glass, metal and all types of paper.
Together with $4,325 in city matching funds, the $21,625 grant covered the startup costs, enabling the Sanitation Department to buy small bins for individual apartment dwellers and large, wheeled carts for each building. By making recycling more convenient and showing residents how to reduce their household waste stream, the pilot project aims to divert 14 tons of recyclable solid waste from the landfill by June 30.
Asheville GreenWorks has taken the lead in community outreach, “so this pilot program will be as successful as possible,” notes Chavez. Those efforts have included several community meetings; a “recycling education vehicle” that the nonprofit drives to neighborhoods, schools and special events; door-to-door canvassing led by Community Engagement Coordinator Dewana Little; and a survey asking residents what kinds of recycling services they needed.
Having smaller bins for apartment dwellers and being able to include all recyclables in a single container, rather than having to sort them, says Weaver, “will greatly enhance their ability to recycle and reduce waste.”
To quantify the program’s results, the Sanitation Department weighed the amount of trash collected in the target communities last August and September, before recycling began. Since then, the department has periodically monitored and weighed both the trash and recyclables collected. Meanwhile, Curbside Management, Buncombe County’s primary recycling contractor, will monitor the recyclables for contamination and report possible sources to Sanitation. Although the sample size is limited at this point, it shows a 22.8 percent drop in the total weight of solid waste collected in the pilot communities on selected dates, compared with the control numbers.
The project is part of the city’s ambitious Zero Waste AVL program, which aims to cut the total weight of solid wastes going to the landfill by 50 percent by 2035. That’s when the Buncombe County Landfill is projected to reach full capacity. Adopted by City Council in 2010, the plan established a series of five-year benchmarks en route to the long-term goal.
And with the successful rollout of the “Big Blue” bins, a single-stream recycling program and the current pilot project, the program appears to be on track with the timeline set by City Council so far. The next big hurdle for Zero Waste AVL will be developing and implementing a pay-as-you-throw system that incentivizes recycling and encourages reducing the waste stream by treating trash the same as water, sewage or other utilities. At this writing, Council is still considering whether it should be a bag- or a cart-based system.
“The Office of Sustainability is quite pleased with the initial results of the program and its partners,” notes Weaver, and outreach and public education will continue “to gauge the needs of each individual community as the program grows.”
Meanwhile, other public housing developments want to know when they’ll be included. If the pilot is successful, the city will apply for another such grant this year to expand the program to other areas; eventually, the goal is to provide recycling service at all public housing communities.
And for Livingston resident Jared Pearce and his family, the pilot program has been a welcome addition to the community. “My wife and I have been asking for recycling in this neighborhood for over a year,” he reveals. “We love it, and we’re so glad it’s here. We found out, once we started, that we actually throw out one bag of house garbage every week: The rest goes to recycling.”