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Restaurant owners scramble to comply with mandatory recycling law

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Landfills in North Carolina should become a lot emptier due to a new law requiring nearly 8,000 restaurants to start recycling alcoholic beverage containers.

The law takes effect Jan. 1 and was passed by the state’s General Assembly this year. It requires all ABC-permit holders to recycle beer, wine and liquor bottles and cans.

The mandate has caused restaurants and municipalities to work feverishly to comply by the new year. This isn’t an easy feat for some restaurants in Western North Carolina — not every town has recycling pickup service in place, forcing eateries to ponder the possibility of taking their own time and energy to sort and transport containers to recycling center.

“We’re just kind of scrambling,” admitted Linda Brinkley, manager of J. Arthur’s in Maggie Valley.


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A lack of options

The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, which opposed an earlier 2005 version of the law, readily lauds the benefits of recycling.

“Our industry certainly supports recycling efforts and we want to do our share. It’s been a shame to think all the bottles have been going into the trash. I think it’s high time,” said CEO Paul Stone.

However, NCRLA worked to revise the bill to be more lenient on restaurants located in areas without readily accessible recycling in place.

“We’re supportive of the concept of recycling and having to be required to do that, as long as there’s a source. If it wasn’t practical, we didn’t want them to be forced to have to do that. It would be a hindrance to their business,” Stone explained.

This is a real problem for many restaurants in Western North Carolina. Alan Schultz, who manages Firebird’s Rocky Mountain Grill in Highlands, has always recycled — but it’s far from convenient. Since Highlands doesn’t offer recycling pickup, Schultz must cart his recycling down the mountain to a center in Franklin nearly 20 minutes away.

This wasn’t as much of a problem before, when the Firebird only served wine. But the liquor by the drink referendum passed in Highlands this past November, so Schultz is looking for another solution in anticipation of beer and liquor bottles that will be added to the mix.

“A lot of people are saying the government is collecting all this tax, and it would be nice if they would provide us with the proper collection,” Schultz said.

The level of recycling service offered to restaurants and other businesses varies from locale to locale in WNC. Bryson City and Franklin do offer it as a town service. Highlands, Waynesville and Maggie Valley don’t. Sylva provides a small recycling bin for $20 a month, but it’s often too small to be useful to restaurants.

“We know that it’s a brand new law and not all municipalities and counties are necessarily ready for this. We certainly encourage everybody to contact their local municipality because every situation is different,” Stone suggests.

Some restaurants — like J Arthur’s in Maggie Valley — have contracted with a private company that will pick up recyclable items. This may prove to be a boon to those companies. Helping Hands Svc. Company, which services Jackson County, has already seen restaurants jumping on board.

“I have some definite increase in business. I have gained new business because of that (law),” said Bill Buscemi, owner of Helping Hands.

Brinkley said the company that picks up the trash at J Arthur’s recently started offering recycling pickup as well.

Still, there are downsides to relying on private companies for recycling pickup. For one, the number of companies that offer those services is limited.

“Very few are doing it yet,” Brinkley said.

Another downside is cost. Brinkley wouldn’t give an exact number, but she did say recycling pickup “costs a good amount of money — more than garbage.”

Shaun Smathers, manager of Headlights Bar and Grill in Waynesville, said when his restaurant looked into private pickup, “the rates were outrageous.”

Helping Hands charges $40 a week for pickup from a large producer, like a high-volume restaurant.

Whether restaurants get their recycling picked up by a town or private company, for the most part, it all ends up in the same place — the county recycling center. By some accounts, these could use some improvement and upgrades to accommodate the impending influx of bottles and cans.

Stephen King, Haywood County’s recycling coordinator, said he’s prepared for the increase and has gotten some things set up in preparation. But it was all on his own accord.

“I didn’t have any money out of the budget this year. I put some bins together at no cost to the county, but I’m hoping next budget year to put in more funds to accommodate the bins for the influx of material,” King said.

In Jackson County, “the county needs to allocate some funds to build another building on site so we have a little better spot,” said Buscemi.

There is a piece of good news for businesses that find themselves scrambling to comply with the new law. Partly because of the efforts of the NCRLA, the 2007 law allows restaurants that don’t have access to recycling services to apply for a one-year exemption until a solution can be found.

“The new statute does allow for businesses to apply for a one-year exemption if there is not recycling in their area,” said Mike Herring, who is an administrator with the state ABC Commission.


Compliance or consequences

Since recycling is not something the ABC Commission usually deals with, the commission has partnered with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, retail merchants, restaurant associations and the Alcohol Law Enforcement to ensure restaurants are in compliance with the law.

“(The statute) gave the responsibility to the ABC commission to enforce the law,” Herring explained. “We do everything as it pertains to alcoholic beverages in North Carolina as far as issuing the permits and violation of ABC laws, and we approve the product that comes in state. But this is something that has been given to us by statute, so we’re working with the different industry groups out there to try to ensure compliance.”

The commission has already done some enforcement of the law by requiring new applicants for ABC permits to show proof of recycling, said Herring.

“If they had some sort of a contract with a waste management company, we’d want to see a copy of that,” he said.

The ALE is in charge of writing up violations and sending them to the ABC commission. The ALE will look for compliance with the law during routine restaurant inspections, said John Pace, assistant supervisor at the ALE’s Asheville bureau.

“While we’re doing inspections we’ll look for tell-tale signs. We’ll issue citations. We won’t ask for documentation unless we have suspicion it’s not being complied with,” Pace said.

However, the ALE won’t be making special trips to restaurants just to check on compliance with the new statute.

“We’re stretched pretty thin right now, so unless we get a complaint about it we won’t go out just looking for this. It will be incorporated within our duties,” Pace explained.

And what will the penalty be for restaurants failing to comply? Before the statute was amended, it was much stiffer.

“The original bill had a severe fine attached to it — the same fine as if you served an underage person a drink. We certainly did not think that was comparable to not recycling properly, but we were able to work with the original bill sponsor and the ABC to modify that and make it more fair,” Stone said.

The ABC commission says it has not yet decided on what the new penalty will be for those in violation of the statute.

“We’ve not yet determined what the amount of a penalty would be; however, if you don’t have recycling, we’re not going to give you a hundred dollar penalty only. We’re going to fine you x number of dollars per day,” Herring said.



It’s too early to say exactly what the impact of the new recycling statute will be. Almost 8,000 businesses will have to establish recycling programs because of the law, but it’s impossible to tell how many already recycled, Stone said.

“A lot of our folks already do, but we really don’t know because up to this law, it really hasn’t been a major issue,” he said.

One thing is certain — restaurants with ABC permits generally go through a lot of bottles. Headlights in Waynesville, for example, recycles every other day, because their three 10-gallon bins fill up that often.

The benefits of recycling are numerous. According to the 2004 N.C. Solid Waste Management report, the average lifespan of today’s landfills means there are only 18 years remaining to hold waste in the state. Recycling also provides jobs. The Partnership for Bar and Restaurant Recycling estimates recycling employs 14,000 North Carolinians and those jobs have increased 48 percent in the last 10 years.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, explained why he voted in favor of the new law.

“It’s the right thing to do. Before we become buried in our own waste, we are going to have to recycle and get everybody involved in it,” he said.


Learn more

Restaurants can visit these Web sites for more information on House Bill 1518, which mandates that all restaurants holding an ABC permit must recycle all alcoholic beverage containers. The law took effect Jan. 1, 2008.

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