The situation has left the public works director frustrated and town officials wondering what to do next to entice more involvement.
Only about 140 households in Sylva are regularly sorting and setting their recyclables out on the curb on a weekly basis, according to the town public works department. Another 25 or so households participate, but do so less frequently.
Based on the latest population data, that amounts to barely 10 percent of Sylva residents. The remaining 90 percent of residents are just choosing not to participate, surmises Public Works Director Dan Schaeffer.
“There’s no incentive for some people to do it,” Schaeffer said. “It’s a pain to set out four cans instead of two on trash day.”
Therein lies a likely culprit for Sylva’s low participation in curbside recycling. Residents must sort and place recycling into two plastic bins to get curbside pick-up: one for paper and cardboard and a second for plastic, glass and cans.
Many towns simply have residents place their recycling at the curb in blue-tinted plastic bags — available in any grocery isle — to differentiate it from regular trash.
There’s another catch in Sylva: you have to make a trip down to town hall and buy the bins for $30 a pop before you can start recycling.
Although Schaeffer said the town offers price breaks for those who can’t afford the bins in an attempt to make recycling more accessible, the town has sold only about 180 sets of the bins since it began the curbside recycling program five years ago.
When it launched the new curbside recycling, the town invested in hundreds of the bins — the unsold ones fit languishing at town hall waiting for takers.
“I wish more people would participate,” Schaeffer said. “It really hasn’t grown that much.”
Last year, the solid waste employees collected less than 40 tons of recyclables but more than 620 tons of trash — approximately 80 percent of that trash could have been recycled, Schaeffer said. Schaeffer has gone before the town board and tried public awareness campaigns on the radio, to no avail.
In fact, the latest news out of the town’s recycling program was not that more people were pitching in but that about 15 to 20 of the few households participating weren’t even recycling correctly.
Residents were mixing material meant to be separated by the two bins. Some were trying to recycle un-recyclable items. And others were placing the recyclables in bags — which is a no-no for Sylva’s program although widely used by other towns with curbside recycling — rather than directly in the bins.
Schaeffer chalked this up to the communication barrier between residents and those administering the program. Ultimately, after a series of attempts to correct the behavior of recycling offenders with notes and literature, the public works department stopped picking up from the persistently out-of-line households.
That worked, for the time being, and prompted phone calls from the troublesome recyclers wondering why no one was emptying their bins.
“It’s not rocket science,” Schaeffer said. “It’s very simple; it was just a matter of getting them to call in.”
A better way?
But the rash of non-compliant recyclers may have brought to light a larger problem plaguing Sylva’s recycling program: the extra step residents must take to participate. And, experience shows many humans do not go out of their way to recycle.
When compared with neighboring Waynesville, where an estimated 65 percent of the town residents recycle curbside, the differences are apparent. Waynesville uses a co-mingle method that allows residents put all their recyclables in a tinted “blue bag” they can buy at any store — no extra bins or sorting required.
Daryl Hannah, who manages Waynesville’s program, said the method seems to be working, if a comparison with participation in Sylva is any indication.
“When we started out [participation] was probably just as low,” Hannah said. “But every year, it increases, and hopefully, it will keep increasing.”
However, while Waynesville’s program has been in place since the mid-1990s, Sylva’s has been started, discontinued, then reinstated and changed during that period.
Sylva previously used a bag system when it contracted with a private company to do its waste collection. Then, curbside recycling in Sylva took a hiatus and didn’t return until the town took over its own solid waste collection and elected leaders brought in the bin system.
Now, Sylva spends about $22,000 per year on equipment, manpower and gas to run its in-house, curbside recycling pick-up. The collected recyclables are then delivered to a Jackson County collection station.
Town board member, Barbara Hamilton, said she cuts out the middleman and just began taking her own recyclables to Jackson County’s collection site in Dillsboro — an indicator that perhaps more town residents are actually recycling but doing it outside of the bin program.
Jackson County, as a whole, ranked 25th among other North Carolina counties in 2010-11 in terms of per capita recycling collection, down form 16th place two years earlier.
Swain, Macon and Haywood counties all rank in the top 11, above Jackson County, for recycling collection per capita in the last state report.
Stephen King, Haywood County’s Solid Waste Director, who coordinates with the town of Waynesville for its recycling program, said a successful program will typically stress two factors: education and “easibility.”
“If it’s easy, people will participate,” King said. “But even if it’s easy, it will take an educational component to catch on. We are creatures of habit.”
The most successful recycling programs in the state use 90-gallon bins on wheels, in which all the recyclable items go, King said. The convenience of it prompts participation.
“There is one bin where people can put everything into,” King said. “It has wheels; it’s kept outside; and that makes it easy for everyone to do.”
However, Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody doesn’t think Sylva’s recycling woes are because of its methodology and points out that it really isn’t that difficult to buy two bins and keep the recyclables separate.
“I don’t think buying your own bins is a deterrent to recycling,” Moody said. “And most people don’t like to separate, but it’s not separating; you just don’t mix to start with.”
He said there are no specific plans in place to promote the town’s program, but he is constantly encouraging more people to take part.