Workers sort metals, glass, and different plastics from a conveyor belt at the county's recycling facility downtown
In a giant warehouse facility on Romney Street, eight men and women stand along a conveyor belt and sort out the used receptacles that pass in front of them. One woman's job is to pull out plastics; the next removes glass. A giant magnet over the belt plucks away the cans. The walls are lined with cubes of smashed aluminum, milk jugs, and paperboard 20 feet high, ready to be sold and turned back into new products.
In 2007, Charleston County disposed of 79,000 tons of garbage and 47,000 tons of incinerator ash at the Bees Ferry Landfill. (Until this year, much of our trash was burned: 188,000 tons equals 47,000 tons of ash.) Twenty-one thousand tons of recyclables were processed at the Romney Street sorting facility — just over seven percent of the non-construction material/yard scraps waste stream.
That disparity is due partially to the county's lack of a pickup recycling program for businesses. Restaurants and bars wishing to have their bottles and cans recycled have to contract with a private pickup company like Fisher Recycling or Fennel Container Co.
For some businesses, paying a private firm to pick up their recyclables is cheaper than paying the county to take it to the landfill. "We've decreased our waste by 70 percent and found that it's actually more cost effective to recycle than it is to pay the current landfill rates," says Karalee Nielson, a co-owner of Revolutionary Eating Ventures, whose holdings include Taco Boy, Poe's, Monza, and Raval.
According to owner Chris Fisher, his firm charges about $75 to $80 to pick up four 96-gallon containers six days a week. He also takes cardboard and grease, and says that next year he plans to begin a composting program.
A City Paper survey of 40 Meeting and King Street restaurants and bars found that 21 say they recycle, although some only did so for cardboard or glass. Twenty-eight of those establishments use Styrofoam for their to-go containers, a material infamous for its millennia-long lifespan. Many of the businesses use No. 5 or No. 6 plastics in their drink cups (they're cheaper), neither of which are recyclable by the county or private companies in Charleston.
Jason Cronen, the owner of local company Ad-Naps, hopes to eliminate some of Charleston's disposable waste through the introduction of corn and sugar cane-based cups and to-go containers.
"A 10-cent to-go fee would more than offset the added cost of a compostable container," says Cronen, who is also quick to point out that his products are hardly a panacea for the county's recycling woes. "Without a municipal compost program, these cups and containers still go to the landfill."
Of course, a biodegradable cup will disappear in a landfill much quicker than a plastic one, but the real magic of the products is their ability to "complete the loop." In the right conditions, a corn-based cup can decompose into soil and be used to grow more corn. Cities like Baltimore and Minneapolis have built giant composters called "anaerobic digesters" that use heat, pressure, and humidity to break down food waste and products like corn cups into compost in under a month's time.
Charleston County Solid Waste Director Greg Varner says that's not even on the radar around here. The county offers a compost operation for vegetative waste, breaking down yard and food scraps with a sifter and an open pit at the landfill, but the half a million dollars needed to build a digester isn't available.
"Our hope is that one day recycling will actually make a little money," says Varner, citing a 10-percent increase in recyclables arriving at Romney Street over the last two years.
Are restaurant pickups in the county's future? "I don't think it's on the horizon, because it would be very expensive," he says. "We encourage restaurants to bring us their recyclables, and from a cost standpoint it can reduce the waste that they're paying to send to the landfill."
For a business like Mellow Mushroom on King Street, however, delivering recyclables would require a large truck and the money to pay an employee to drop it off several times a week. They typically fill up almost 10 big trash bins with bottles and cans twice a week, which Fisher Recycling hauls away for what bar manager Andrew Miller says is a "nominal fee."
"The city provides nothing for downtown recycling initiatives, but we've been very happy with Fisher," he says. "We were thrilled to get someone who could help."
Mellow Mushroom has also taken other initiatives, like using recycled cardboard to-go containers and eliminating separate vessels for dressings, instead putting them directly on the salad.
Although a county-run recycling pickup service for restaurants would require more facilities, employees, and trucks, it would also dramatically decrease the amount of waste going to landfills. And while private companies can haul those bottles and cans away and recycle them, some restaurants either don't realize such a service is around or they simply choose not to use it. As a result, it just might be up to consumers to let restaurants know they don't want to frequent businesses that use Styrofoam and do not recycle.
what you should know about recycling at home
• You don't have to sort out plastics, cans, and bottles. Put them all in the blue bin. Papers and paperboards, however, should be placed in a grocery bag next to the bin.
• Blue bins can be picked up at multiple locations (see www.CharlestonCounty.org) or delivered by calling 720-7111 ext. 30.
• Charleston County recycles only #1 and #2 plastics. Most bottles and jugs are good but not most plastic cups.
• Corrugated cardboard can't be picked up but can be taken to one of over 30 drop sites.
• Hard-working people sort your recyclables. Rinse them out and make everyone's life happier. (A peanut butter jar or ketchup bottle full of gunk will get tossed in the trash at the warehouse).
For your pickup day and drop-off locations, visit www.CharlestonCounty.org.