To improve its “horrible” 4 percent recycling rate, one of Augusta’s solid waste supervisors can see a day when residents are forced to include recyclable items with household garbage in order to receive curbside trash service.
Similar sanctions are already enforced in large cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and New York. The metro Atlanta city of Griffin has had mandatory recycling since 2007 to recover more of the 5,500 tons of residential waste it disposes of annually and save on landfill and hauling costs.
Last year, Augusta recycled 3,226 tons of the 72,200 tons of residential trash collected, according to city records.
Lori Videtto, the deputy director of Augusta Environmental Services, called the 4 percent rate “horrible” last week and said mandatory recycling could one day be a viable option but that the city was not ready for that based on the number of residents who currently recycle.
“If you truly want to get 60, 70, 80 percent diversion, then you need an ordinance and a way to enforce it,” she said. “Without that, you’ll never get there. You won’t get there just on the good hearts of people.”
Augusta has long struggled to match the national recycling rate of 30 percent.
In 2011 and 2012, the city recycled between 2,100 and 2,300 tons of trash, a total that pales next to the nearly 310,000 tons of total solid waste it disposed of in each of the two years.
Last year, Augusta’s recycled weight increased by more than 1,100 tons after the city started offering “recycling perks,” but Videtto said more incentives are needed. The program awards residents points, which can be donated to charity or redeemed for coupons, every time their bin is dumped.
Unlike Aiken County, Augusta doesn’t have commercial or industrial recycling programs or convenience centers where residents can drop off conventional waste, such as glass, paper, plastic and aluminum, and hazardous items, including electronics, batteries, tires and used motor oil. These items can be taken to the county landfill, where they are packaged for disposal elsewhere.
With 12 drop-off locations and commercial and industrial programs that generated more than 8,100 tons of recycled materials, Aiken County achieved a recycling rate of 19.2 percent last year, its best percentage since 2009, when it managed 19.3 percent. The county recycled 21,260 tons, compared to the 110,602 tons of solid waste it generated in 2013.
South Carolina’s recycling rate was 31.5 percent last year, according to the state’s annual Solid Waste Management Report. Georgia’s rate is not known, as a change in law in 2010 no longer required the Department of Community Affairs to compile annual solid waste reports.
Because Columbia County closed its landfill and privatized all garbage removal in 2006, it no longer has data on nonrecycled solid waste. Statistics from its three recycling locations show totals have been steadily decreasing, dropping from 499 tons in 2011 to 434 tons in 2012 and 397 tons in 2013.
Green Programs Manager Jenny Hinson said Columbia County’s recycling decreased because of a “severe contamination” in plastic recycling containers at its government center in 2012 that resulted in its contractor removing and eventual shuttering the location in 2013.
With containers no longer a viable option, Hinson said Columbia County opened a second recycling center at Riverside Park in Evans in January 2013 and recently added a baling system to a 4-year-old facility it has on William Few Parkway so it could continue to store and sell commodities to a wide-range of buyers.
As a result, she said the county now averages 35½ tons of recyclables a month, which is one ton greater than it averaged in all of 2013.
Rodney Cooper, the solid waste supervisor for Aiken County, estimates that 40 percent of the customers who drive through his department’s dozen drop-off centers are recycling, but said with more public awareness the county could appeal to all people who stop by just to throw away trash.
“We still have 60 percent we need to capture. We could be doing better,” he said. “Some people are die-hard recyclers, but others are old school and don’t see any reason for it. We need to explain to them why recycling is important.”
In making his case, Cooper said his staff combines the items collected at each drop-off site to consolidate trips to the processing facility in North Augusta, saving the county thousands of dollars in hauling costs in its $2.5 million annual budget for waste disposal.
More importantly, he said South Carolina’s solid waste report shows Aiken County, at its current disposal rate of 237,000 tons, has more than doubled the life of its landfill to 154 years. That’s compared to 73 years at its permitted disposal rate of 500,000 tons.
Despite its efforts, Aiken County’s recycling rate ranks 28th out of South Carolina’s 46 counties. Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach, recycles half of the waste it disposes, and 13 other counties have rates higher than 30 percent. Edgefield and McCormick counties have recycling rates between 7 and 8 percent.
Seattle, a major player in big-city waste recovery, expects to reach a recycling rate of 60 percent by next year, largely because of mandatory collections that even include food waste, according to online reports.
Since Griffin became the only Georgia city to require recycling, residential rates have risen to nearly 20 percent, and between $38,000 and $40,000 has been deferred annually for landfilling and hauling costs, according to reports published on the city’s Web site.
Cooper believes local rates could improve with 600 to 700 people transferring to Fort Gordon in the next five years from the Washington, D.C., area, where recycling is required in many surrounding communities.
Though he thinks required recycling could result in a quicker turnaround, he said some residents might resist.
“When you start mandating things, people tend to push back,” Cooper said. “To me, it would help, but it’s hard to do and something that would need to be implemented over a period of time.”
Videtto agreed with Cooper that recycling efforts take years to perfect. She said her staff is considering drop-off locations for glass and expanding government-office recycling into a full-fledged program.
Citing the 2,000 additional recycling carts the city issued in the six months after it rolled out its recycling perks program, she said there is excitement in Augusta to reuse materials.
“It is not an easy thing to do,” Videtto said of motivating people to recycle.