Have you heard the rumor but tried to ignore it as you dutifully gathered your newspapers, aluminum cans, and plastic containers for your recycle bin? Your neighbor, a friend, or relative may have told you that all those things you dutifully separate and set aside to recycle just end up in the landfill anyway. Well, it’s not true. Sort of.
The fact is recycling is a worldwide marketplace with fluctuating supply and demand. Cardboard or a certain type of plastic might be hot at times while at others it’s not. But that doesn’t stop local recycling coordinators from trying to find new life for as many items as they can. They say it shouldn’t stop you either.
“We really do want to keep as much as possible out of the landfill,” says Laura Anne Hunt, recycling coordinator for Lexington County. The county offers curbside recycling to approximately 32,000 residents through a trio of contractors. It is one of several local governments to hold periodic events throughout the year to recycle items such as consumer electronics, documents that need to be shredded, scrap metal, tires, and hazardous household waste. “We also have 11 collection centers and take recycling at the Edmund landfill.”
Recycling is a $13 billion industry in the Palmetto State, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce. It accounts for more than 22,000 jobs, and South Carolina has more than 300 recycling companies. Anna DeLage, recycling market development manager at Commerce, points out that if every household in the Carolinas recycled two additional bottles per week, 300 additional jobs would be created.
“With 10 PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a type of plastic) reclaimers, four recycled cardboard mills, four electric arc furnace steel mills, four textile recyclers, one glass recycler, and much more, South Carolina has the capacity to recycle much of the recycling stream,” Anna says.
Most Midlands residents interact with the industry through curbside recycling programs offered by their city or county. Citizens fill a roll cart or recycling bin with newspapers, bottles, and cans, and the public works department, or a contractor working for the local government, empties the contents at curbside and takes it away.
“Our recycling program started in April 1991,” says Samantha Yager, interim superintendent of solid waste with the city of Columbia. “Recycling is very hyperlocal. We’re all neighbors, but we all do things a little differently. We’ve always encouraged Columbia residents to stick to our recycling list.”
Each local government’s list can be found on its respective website, and many also offer information via an app that can provide recycling-day reminders. A quick web sampling shows the recycling basics are similar throughout Richland and Lexington counties, but, like Samantha says, each entity has different points of emphasis.
Columbia provides weekly pickup for approximately 35,000 customers and also recycles items such as batteries, cooking oil, light bulbs, motor oil, and tires at various drop-off locations. Richland County offers pickup to 91,903 residences and reminds folks to clean/rinse items before putting them in the roll cart. Irmo provides curbside, roll cart recycling for residents every two weeks, but glass is not accepted. Curbside garbage collection is optional in Chapin, but residents can pay a contractor for recycling roll cart pickup. In Forest Acres, recycling is picked up twice per month using roll carts, while Cayce uses bins, which are picked up weekly.
Some small businesses, particularly those in residential areas, participate in curbside recycling programs. Many, however, look to the private sector to assist. Gail Wilson recalls a time when a man with a van, or pickup truck, would offer to pick up cardboard from local businesses for free, then take it to a recycling center to trade it for cash.
“When I got into the business five years ago, there were lots of those kinds of folks,” says Gail, who owns Anchor Shred & Recycle Co. A dip in the market for recyclables made the free pickup business model untenable, and forced those haulers out of business. “That’s basically how we found our niche. People still needed a cost effective way to recycle, whether it was once a week or once a quarter.”
Gail’s five-employee operation charges clients a fee to pick up recyclables while also offering secure document destruction. Anchor’s customers might range from a retailer wanting to recycle all the cardboard delivery boxes it receives, a school district seeking cost effective single-stream collection or an office in a downtown high-rise that does not have recycling services provided by its landlord.
The Department of Commerce encourages continued growth of the industry through tax breaks for recycling equipment and by connecting businesses with recyclers. Anna says recyclers’ business models vary widely in their approach. She provides an example via Hartsville-based Sonoco Products Co.
“Sonoco is vertically integrated,” she says. “They operate a materials recovery facility that takes residential recycled material. After sorting and separating the recyclable material into categories, the majority of the paper goes to feed its Hartsville paper mill while the other commodities are sold.”
In the Midlands, all recycling roads lead to Sonoco or at least the company’s materials recovery facility on Idlewild Boulevard near Williams-Brice Stadium. It has a nickname, MRF — pronounced “murph” — and practically a life of its own given all that goes on inside and outside.
“We do a lot,” says Palace Stepps, president and general manager of Sonoco Recycling LLC, a division of Sonoco Products Co. “The MRF has a lot of mechanical equipment, some high tech and some very low tech.”
Municipal and county programs send their unsorted recyclables to the MRF, as do many private recyclers. The operations inside the MRF, as described by Palace, include magnets grabbing steel, eddy current pushing aluminum one way, and optical-scanner-guided jets of air sending plastics in another direction. The machinery, and some human sorters, try to divvy up the items as best they can but are sometimes hamstrung by the very folks filling those bins and roll carts.
“What happens is what we call ‘wishcycling,’” Palace says. Well-meaning citizens put items such as Christmas lights and garden hoses in their bins or try to organize things by putting them in plastic bags. “We hate long, stringy things, and bags will eventually tear up and wrap around our equipment.”
Not-quite-recyclables tangling up the gears at the MRF can be a hassle, but it also speaks to an issue with bottom-line implications. Contamination, whether it results from mixing nonrecyclables with recyclables or putting dirty food containers and half-filled bottles in the recycling bin, makes the process more costly. It’s a growing problem that local coordinators are trying to address.
“It’s not necessarily what’s recyclable, it’s what’s recoverable. Single Stream or Curbside recycling can make that more difficult by making it easier to contaminate valuable recyclables. The fees that we were paying for contamination residue had hit an all-time high in 2020,” says Syndi Castelluccio, recycling coordinator for Richland County. The county is preparing an education campaign that involves everything from apps to fridge magnets to stickers on roll carts. Syndi says governments have long relied on people to educate themselves about recycling do’s and don’ts, but the proliferation of triangular recycling logos on everyday items has bolstered the wishcycling mantra of “if you put it in the roll cart, someone else will figure it out.”
Another contaminant is glass, which shatters inside the trucks and then imbeds itself in everything else. China was once the top customer in the international recycling market, partly because its contamination standards for imported recyclables were low. But several years ago, it sought to reduce the amount of municipal solid waste that was being imported into China along with recyclables.
“Millions and millions of pounds of materials were going into their landfills,” Palace says. “Eventually China turned off the demand altogether. It drove down prices to historic lows.”
With China dropping out, many recycling programs had nowhere to send their plastics as demand plummeted. Particularly unwanted were a class of items called “mixed plastics,” including clamshell takeout containers, dinner trays from frozen meals, and fast-food drink cups. Since then, China has also enacted a ban on recovered paper imports.
“As it’s become more expensive, a lot of municipalities have abandoned their recycling programs,” Palace says. Sonoco Recycling operates 20 different plants across five states, including four MRFs. “I think what makes the Midlands of South Carolina unique in a good way is the commitment to recycling.”
Which brings us back to that rumor you heard. Along with contaminated recyclables that can’t be recovered, it is true sometimes that a buyer can’t be found for some recyclable items and those end up in the landfill as well.
“That’s why it’s so important that we identify what those valuable commodities are,” Syndi says. PET plastics, cardboard, paperboard, and aluminum are valuable today, but tomorrow may be a different story. “Recycling is a business. Markets will continue to fluctuate and change, so it is important for us to figure out how to keep our program sustainable.”
Richland County is taking a back-to-basics approach, emphasizing paper, plastics, and cans for roll carts while continuing to accept a range of items at events and drop-off locations. It’s also hoping to turn wishcyclers into smart recyclers so more that goes into the roll cart will stay out of the landfill.
“We want to encourage and empower them to recycle right,” Syndi says. “We want the residents to help us by taking part in the sorting process, but we also need to do a better job in helping them to understand what can and cannot be recycled here in Richland County.”
Syndi says local governments can work together to improve the quality of what gets sent to the Columbia MRF. Gail encourages the creation of more seats at the table to discuss ways to develop an ecosystem that fosters recycling and entrepreneurship. She says the issue of waste will have to be addressed, if not proactively then reactively.
“We have some very passionate people that are committed, but we haven’t figured out a system,” Gail says. “Some communities have been working on a system longer. Some cities are focusing on innovation labs and incentives for this issue — and it doesn’t have to be financial incentives.”
Charlotte is one such city, Gail says. In 2018 — just as the recycling market was tanking and some nearby locales were dismantling their programs — a report commissioned by the Queen City laid out a pathway toward a zero-waste community. It described a “circular economy” for Charlotte featuring key goals:
Designing all products for easy repair and disassembly, and for full recyclability.
Creating the necessary business structures and incentives to get these materials back into the economy at their highest possible value.
Striving to use only responsibly sourced, renewable resources for both energy and material provision.
Avoiding the use of toxic substances that may continue to circulate in our environment.
Closer to home, Laura Anne says Lexington County just got a baler that will actually allow it to recycle plastic bags that are brought to the drop-off centers. She recommends Midlands residents get familiar with the specific rules for whichever entity picks up their recyclables.
Samantha says market demand is strong for milk jugs and water bottles (No. 1 plastics) and soap and detergent bottles (No. 2 plastics), as well as cardboard. In earlier times, back when the market was more favorable, Columbia received a rebate from Sonoco for the city’s recyclables.
“It’s never been about trying to make money,” Samantha adds, however. “It’s always been about doing the right thing. Our landfill is right in our backyard. It’s right off Clemson Road.”
Furthermore, as the Charlotte report points out, it’s not just about the amount of landfill space taken up by recoverable items: “Every time a product that we have crafted and manufactured with care ends up in a landfill, not only do we lose the physical resources it is made up of, but also all of the time and energy that went into its creation.”