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‘You’ve got to reboot’: Why a recycling staple won’t be collected anymore in Tega Cay

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Tega Cay’s recycling program already sits on thin ice, and within a week won’t be taking one of its major recycled materials.

Starting Jan. 1, plastics won’t be accepted for recycling in Tega Cay. The move comes after the city stopped accepting glass this summer. The changes reflect shifting economics within the recycling industry.

Yet the plastic and glass may not be the biggest concern.

Tega Cay City Councilwoman Heather Overman posted a Dec. 18 Facebook message stating why the city is “on thin ice with our recycling processor.” Contamination of recyclables -- non-recyclable material mixed in with what the trucks collect -- spiked in November and the city was given until March 1 to resolve the problem or face doubled rates for trash and recycling pick-up, according to the post.

Yard debris, bagged garbage and glass were the biggest culprits. After a 45 percent contamination rate in October, the November rate jumped to 60 percent, according to the Facebook post.

Overman’s post detailing the contamination and the change on glass collection drew more than 100 comments. It prompted her, alongside City Manager Charlie Funderburk, to post a video on Dec. 21 on the city’s Youtube page, responding to many of those comments.

“I understand the frustration,” Overman said in that video. “I understand the confusion. We’re all facing the same situation.”

The issues facing Tega Cay are bigger than just Tega Cay, or its trash and recycling collection provider Signature Waste.

“Basically you’ve got to forget everything you were taught growing up in regards to recycling,” Funderburk said in the video. “You’ve got to reboot. You’ve got to reset.”

The city now is posting change information on its website and social media, including a news flash at tegacaysc.org linking to the video, the waste collection provider site and other information.

“We understand how this will impact many of our residents who participate in the recycle service,” the news flash reads. “The city will continue to explore options with Signature Waste and other partners for a long-term solution.”

Recycling industry

In August, Signature Waste owner Joe Swinford told the Fort Mill Times it was amazing there still were recycling programs and it wouldn’t surprise him to see them gone in six months to a year. Fewer items are being collected by groups wanting to recycle them, he said, while material from construction debris to raw sewage in recycling bins make it more and more expensive to collect.

Also, China has banned foreign waste, and that has created a surplus of would-be recyclables in the U.S.

Some groups have stopped collecting items. Some items now go to landfills. Glass in Rock Hill and elsewhere, the Times reported, often ended up being thrown away rather than recycled.

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The Charlotte Observer reported similar cases in North Carolina, where some material sent abroad could end up in landfills while recycling costs twice as much as throwing items away.

Tega Cay leaders say smaller municipalities like theirs are among the first to face economic swings with recycling. Funderburk said in the video he spoke about it with the city manager in Lancaster, where their recycling program was discontinued.

“This isn’t a new issue, it’s just finally hitting us,” Funderburk said. “It’s going to start hitting others as we continue to go.”

Overman said she expects updates every few months in Tega Cay on the recycling situation.

“This problem is probably going to get worse before it gets better,” she said.

Tega Cay leaders say they don’t want to eliminate recycling.

“Our goal is to not get rid of it at all,” Overman said. “While the material that we can accept has gone down, we still want to continue to accept the material that we can.”

The contamination issue in particular will be key.

“We’ve got to clean up the contamination, or the end result is going to be no more recycling here in Tega Cay and that is absolutely not what we want to have happen,” Funderburk said.

What residents can do

While recycling changes won’t put money in Tega Cay wallets, they could cost residents more.

Tega Cay residents asked Overman why they should continue paying the $14.80 per month for trash and recycling pickup if glass, and now plastic, won’t be collected.

“We’ve never paid for recycling, and you almost have to think of (trash and recycling) as separate entities.

Signature Waste charges for trash, but hasn’t charged for recycling. The company could do it because historically there was a market for the recyclables.

“That market has disappeared, nationwide and really globally,” Funderburk said.

Some companies charge $100 or more per ton for recycling. It costs Signature Waste about $20 a ton to serve Tega Cay, a figure the company could make up by selling the material in a strong market. However, if contamination continues, the company’s cost could double, according to Overman and Funderburk in the video.

If Signature Waste can’t make the finances work, it would be up to the city to pay for continued recycling.

“If and when it hits that $40 a ton number, we will actually be paying more for recycling than trash,” Overman said.

The city can’t pay the $100 or more other companies charge, she said.

The contamination issue also has an environmental impact, by causing truckloads of materials to reroute away from recycling sites.

“We’re basically turning this recycling center into a landfill because of our contamination,” Funderburk said.

The city is working on education campaigns from social media to school curriculum. Inserts go out in utility bills. One of the biggest contaminators in recycling is glass. Putting the glass in the trash also has an impact, by increasing the city’s tonnage which could at some point increase prices.

The city encourages residents to take glass and now plastics to a York County convenience center.

Because glass is sorted there, Funderburk said, a market for the glass remains. York County has 16 convenience centers. The nearest to Tega Cay is the Baxter site, on S.C. 160 near Gold Hill Elementary School.

Tega Cay will continue collecting some items.

“The list is pretty small,” Overman said. “Cardboard or corrugated material, we say white paper but really any paper that isn’t wax-coated. Newspapers, things like that. And aluminum.”

The Tega Cay Fire Department collects cans for children’s burn victims, and the Fort Mill High School band collects scrap metal and aluminum. The city encourages using both those resources.

Overman also asks residents to make lifestyle changes.

She stopped buying bulk bottled water in favor of a reusable, filtered pitcher. Taking reusable bags to the grocery store, including produce bags, is another suggestion. Buying from farmers markets where there is no single-use plastic.

Funderburk said he hopes global markets for glass, plastic and other materials will come back and make recycling profitable. For now he looks at the closest mixed glass processors in Raleigh, N.C., and Atlanta. Tega Cay could make changes in what it allows, but the changes wouldn’t be cheap.

Residents asked leaders about getting rid of Signature Waste in favor of another company. The economics facing the city aren’t specific to that company, Funderburk said, or to the city.

“It does not solve this problem at all,” he said.

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