Raleigh, N.C. — For many, recycling is second nature. With curbside pickup and recycling centers, communities have made the process easy.
But in the past couple of years, the demand for recyclable materials has been kicked to the curb.
In the Triangle, recyclables are no longer profitable for local governments.
The Sonoco Recycling plant in east Raleigh is noisy, smelly and dirty but seems amazing.
“I’m fascinated by it. I love it,” said Kalisa Knight, the plant’s safety coordinator.
Every soda can, water bottle, longneck, sports page and pizza box chucked in a recycling bin in the Triangle ends up at the plant, creating rivers and mountains of throwaways that will find a way back into the marketplace.
“Our cans, our aluminum cans, we (sell to) Anheuser-Busch, so they actually buy cans from us,” Knight said.
But recycling is subject to the cycles of economics.
The marketplace is overflowing with recyclable stuff, largely thanks to China, meaning prices have hit the floor.
Beginning early last year, China stopped importing lots of the United States’ plastics and paper, banning what it calls “foreign garbage.”
The ban in Beijing led to a bin notice in Aberdeen, which no longer accepts glass in curbside recycling.
Resident Don Benson has to drive his recyclables to the drop-off at the county landfill, “which is a bit inconvenient, but we can do it,” he said.
In December, Moore County — now losing money on recyclables — jacked up recycling fees from $25 per ton to $100.
Chad Beane is the county’s solid waste director.
“After everybody hit the floor with the shock that came with that, it made everybody sit back and reevaluate the programs and see how we can become more efficient,” he said.
Glass, for one, is heavy and not in demand like plastic, so Aberdeen said no more.
Nearby Pinebluff scrapped curbside recycling altogether.
In Wake County, solid waste director John Roberson said now it costs the county $3,000 to $8,000 a month to offload recyclables.
“We used to generate $15,000 to $20,000 a month in revenue,” Roberson said.
With so much out there, buyers can afford to be picky.
Residents can help by keeping recyclables clean: no greasy boxes, no plastic bags, no garden hoses.
But no local government anywhere in the Triangle is about to put a lid on recycling.
“Recycling is important regardless of our payment or the amount of money we get back,” Roberson said. “We’re not doing it for that purpose. We’re doing it for the environmental benefits.”
Despite China’s ban, companies across the Southeast are still buying recyclable materials.
Roberson said he does expect the recycling market to rebound, but it will likely never be what it was five years go.
The bottom line, he said, is to keep recycling.