NAGS HEAD — Even with the upheaval of seemingly everything in everyday life, somehow recycling still matters in North Carolina.
Last month, the state launched the COVID-19 Recycling Relief Grant Program to help recycling businesses and local governments buy equipment and other needs for residential recycling programs impacted by the coronavirus.
Applicants can request up to $20,000 for projects that support or improve existing recycling programs, especially residential collection of traditional recycled material such as paper, plastic and glass.
But the coastal town of Nags Head had already suspended its taxpayer-supported curbside pickup in May, despite its popularity with residents and visitors.
“While the budgetary conditions associated with COVID were a consideration in the decision to suspend the Town’s recycling service,” then-town manager Cliff Ogburn said in a May 28 memo, “contractual issues, rising costs since the program began, uncertainty in the recycling market, and the lack of processing options were all factors in the decision.”
It’s a head-spinning change for Nags Head, a relatively wealthy resort community that prides itself on its clean beaches and environmental stewardship.
Residents and property management companies that provide accommodations for thousands of summer guests were shocked to learn in early May via a text message from the town that curbside recycling would cease May 18. The bright blue recycling carts, they were informed, could now be used for trash.
State officials ‘disturbed’ by action
“The Town of Nags Head did not notify us of their decision to end their recycling program,” Mike Greene, recycling business development specialist for the state Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service, said in June 30 email. “We found out through the media.”
After conducting a pilot program, followed by a voluntary paid curbside pickup program, the town established a year-round curbside program for commingled recyclables in February 2016.
Start-up costs for the program, which was covered by tax revenue, included $191,626 that the town paid for the recycling carts, for which the state provided a $30,000 grant. The town also purchased an additional 1,788 recycling carts to sell for $75 each. Of them, 416 remain in storage.
Greene said his department was “disturbed” not only about the thwarted intent of the state grant, but about the broader message.
“Using recycling carts for trash pickup confuses residents and makes it difficult to re-start recycling service later,” he said in the email. “It propagates the myth that all recycling goes to the landfill and jeopardizes the credibility of neighboring programs. A decision to end a public program comes with the responsibility of removing the associated infrastructure (recycling carts) from the community.”
— Mike Greene, Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service
— Mike Greene, Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service
Mostly due to its lack of regional material recovery facilities, or MRFs, to process recyclables, Greene said, programs in the northeast corner of the state in general are not on par with those elsewhere in the state.
The upheaval in U.S. markets in 2018 after the Chinese stopped accepting the world’s recyclables left contractors scrambling to find places to take material. The situation was more challenging when MRFs were in short supply, such as on the Outer Banks.
With the recycling markets dried up, costs started rising everywhere. Nags Head was unhappy with paying more at a time when its recyclables were being burned rather than recycled.
“When we started this program in 2016, we weren’t paying anything for processing,” said Nags Head Deputy Town Manager Andy Garman in a recent interview. “The disposal was free.”
Garman said that costs with contractor Bay Disposal & Recycling of Powells Point increased from zero to $70 a ton.
“And for $70 they were incinerating it,” he said. That’s because Bay Disposal was hauling the material to Portsmouth, Virginia, to be incinerated for the Navy to use as fuel.
“The cost had gone up considerably, and we weren’t even recycling anymore.”
The town currently pays $77 a ton for landfill tipping fees.
Discussions were held with Bay Disposal about using another facility for recycling, but there were questions that went unanswered regarding potential extra costs if material was contaminated, although Garman said that had not been an issue before with the company.
“We didn’t have certainty,” he said about the cost.
Bay Disposal did not respond to phone and email messages seeking information.
More than 25 residents have volunteered to participate in an ad-hoc recycling committee that is planning to meet later this summer to discuss recycling options. Also, about 130 residents so far have expressed interest in having a subscription pickup service for about $25 a month.
Garman said Bay Disposal is still picking up recyclables that people bring to two collection sites in the town.
‘Breach of contract’
At a Nags Head Board of Commissioners retreat in January, former manager Ogburn, who is now the Southern Shores town manager, characterized Bay Disposal as being in “breach of the contract with the town,” for incinerating the recyclables, according to draft minutes. He asked the board whether that was agreeable and if the contract could be amended for the same cost.
At its May 6 regular board meeting, the board of commissioners noted the town’s commitment to recycling for many years, but stressed that it needed to lessen the financial burdens related to COVID-19.
After a motion from Commissioner Webb Fuller, the board voted unanimously to suspend the recycling program and revisit it at a further date.
“After many years of anticipation and planning, a successful implementation and significant expense, it is unfortunate to end the program abruptly based on the current (likely temporary) conditions,” resident Megan Vaughan wrote in one of the 37 emails the town subsequently received in support of recycling.
Nearly everyone who wrote asked the town to bring some version of the program back.
“We were so excited that Nags Head made curbside pickup an available service in recent years, but also that there seemed to be high levels of participation in the program town-wide, ” resident Becky Harrison said in a May 20 email.
An owner of a property management company and the chair of the town planning board, Vaughan said in later interview that the town did not give the community — including those who serve visitors — a head’s up about the change.
“Usually, you would have some time to prepare,” she said. “Nope — bam! They just pulled the plug.”
It’s not only Nags Head’s residents who want to recycle, Vaughan said. It is also a practice that visitors strongly support and expect. Many of them, she noted, come from states where recycling has been mandated for years.
“When we tell people (that recycling is suspended) they say, ‘You’re kidding! You’re throwing it away?’”
Fears of revenue losses alleviated
As it turned out, fears of massive losses in tax revenue due to the pandemic shutdown have been alleviated by record visitation that has been nonstop since June.
“The occupancy is actually really high,” Garman said.
According to Greene, the incineration at the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy facility in Portsmouth, Virginia, was a temporary solution because Bay Disposal had trouble finding a place to take all the material it had collected. But since then, a recycling facility, Recycling & Disposal Solutions, or RDS, had been located a few miles away in Portsmouth.
Greene said that is unclear why Nags Head did not have its recycling processed at RDS.
“It’s there,” he said. “It’s a matter of choice.”
RDS, which charges about $60 a ton for processing, is currently in discussions with Bay Disposal and officials in Southern Shores related to the town’s curbside pickup program, said RDS owner Joe Benedetto.
Wes Haskett, Southern Shores’ deputy town manager, said that the proposed plan under discussion would increase annual costs by about $5,700, paid for with tax proceeds, to recycle rather than incinerate its recycled material.
“We’re hopeful that we can establish true recycling in Southern Shores again,” he said.
Staff with the state recycling office, including Greene, reached out to Benedetto in late 2019 or early 2020 in an effort to find more options for northeastern North Carolina, Benedetto said, adding they “bent over backwards.” They also worked with him on trying to set up a new MRF in Elizabeth City, he said, although for several reasons that was not possible.
Benedetto has been operating in Portsmouth since 2005, he said, and his family has been in the recycling business since the 1880s.
Although prices for recycled products are at a “historic low,” he said, recycling is here to stay because it lessens the impact on natural resources and the environment.
“I don’t see it changing,” he said. “I see it as a service that people want.”
And even under the recent economic duress, Benedetto said he “worked with his municipalities, and they worked with us.”
“Most people limped along and continued to recycle,” he said.
Of the 442 communities in North Carolina with recycling programs, according to the state, only two towns, Hope Mills and Lumberton, had temporarily suspended their recycling programs due to the virus, although Hope Mills had resumed its program June 17.
Meanwhile, domestic demand for recycled products, along with related jobs, are growing.
Greene said that more sites are starting to come online in Southern states to process recycled paper and recycled plastic.
“The markets are improving slowly,” Greene said, adding, “COVID has not helped the situation.”
One exception, he said, is that the toilet paper shortage created by the pandemic has created a better market for recycled paper.
North Carolina recycled 508,350 tons of bottles, cans, cardboard and paper — 98 pounds per person — through local government programs in fiscal year 2018-19, according to the state. As of March 2020, 1 ton of commingled recyclables was worth $42.88 and the average tipping fee at landfills was $42.60 per ton.
Diverting food waste
Recycling is not just about keeping bottles and cans out of the waste stream, there is a growing appreciation in the U.S. for the value of diverting food waste from landfills.
Nags Head officials said the town will be exploring whether it wants to create an organic waste collection or composting program.
Food scraps not only make up a large percentage of trash, they also create enormous amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is harmful to the climate.
In North Carolina, food waste can be dropped off at collection sites in Wake, Henderson and Orange counties.
Wake County has been working with Jeffrey Brown, a Tenafly, New Jersey, business owner who sells composters called Earth Machines. Brown offers the bins to Wake County residents for half-price.
Brown said he built an online store for Wake County about five years ago, and he opens a window once a year for residents who want a home composter. Because of their size, the machines are only sold by the pallet-load, with 20 per pallet.
When Brown started his business Brand Builders 30 years ago, he was one of the few people in the country selling composters, he said. Now he said he sells them to cities and municipalities in about 15 states.
Of the total 3,500 bought so far through the Wake County store, he said, 1,660 were sold during the last window that closed at the end of May.
The animal-proof machines can process about 10 pounds a week of household waste such as produce peels and coffee grinds, but not protein like bones, fish or cheese, into rich, organic fertilizer. And that’s waste that is not landfilled.
“It’s cost-avoidance,” Brown said. “What’s more amazing, the county didn’t invest anything other than help me promote it.”