Haywood County Solid Waste Director Stephen King did not spend his interview with The Smoky Mountain News sitting at an office, pointing to encouraging recycling statistics.
Instead, King was constantly on the go, picking up a stray glove he spotted on the ground, ripping off plastic wrapping from a cardboard box headed to a recycling pile, and even sorting recyclables, taking the place of an employee as she chatted with the reporter.
King has personally learned to use all the equipment at the Materials Recovery Center in Clyde, where the county’s recyclables are hauled.
As many already know, King’s utter devotion to the cause does not wane after the workday is done. He’s known to spend his spare time picking up recyclables, just like he did with his dad as a young kid.
King says it’s difficult to see a mess without wanting to clean it up.
“It’s just a conscious effort, what I believe in, the way I think people should be,” said King. “I want to take something nobody else wants and make it a valuable commodity.”
Though King is modest about his role, it’s clear his wholehearted commitment to sustainability has given Haywood County an immense leg-up in increasing recycling.
“When the boss gets interested, that makes a big difference,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.
Haywood now ranks 11th in the state for total amount of material recycling, averaging 212.9 tons per capita, according to 2009 statistics from the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources.
A mere two years before in 2007, Haywood County ranked 63rd out of 100 counties in the state. Since then, Haywood has practically doubled its per capita recovery of recyclables.
King said the citizens are the ones who deserve congratulations, not him.
“It’s not a one-man show, it’s a community effort,” said King.
Commissioner Mark Swanger said people are becoming more aware of the benefits of recycling and simply want to do the right thing.
“As generations grow up, it becomes a natural thing to do,” said Swanger. “It’s something they’ve always done.”
Government is certainly taking up the cause as well, with a state ban on plastic in the landfill passed in October 2009 and a landfill ban on discarded computer equipment set to take effect in April 2011.
Local county and town governments have worked to promote recycling to citizens through presentations, newsletters and educational materials online.
The Town of Waynesville is expecting to set its own record for recycling this year. From July to December 2009, the town picked up 157.2 tons of recyclables. If residents continue recycling at this rate, the town might break 300 tons at the end of the fiscal year in July 2010.
In comparison, Waynesville residents recycled a total of 173.6 tons for the entire 2004-2005 fiscal year.
Town Manager Lee Galloway said he’s personally observed an increase in recycling in his own household. Galloway and his wife recently put out their garbage before heading for a walk and realized they only had one bag of trash and two bags of recycling.
“Between what we put in the recycling and what we put in the compost, it really cuts down on what we put in the can at the street,” said Galloway.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley said he hadn’t educated himself on recycling until just last year. Until then, he didn’t realize citizens could recycle more than cardboard.
He went straight to Sam’s Club and bought himself two large trash cans to add to the one he already had for paper.
With seven people in his household, Ensley says he’s seen the number of trash bags he takes out decline from six a week to just two.
“It’s amazing, really,” said Ensley, who became convinced recycling was the way to go when he thought of all the space that recycling would save in the county landfill that taxpayers support.
“I’m not really an environmental-type person, I’m for keeping tax rates low,” said Ensley.
For those who are less than concerned with saving the environment, recycling advocates are likely to bring up two economic arguments to sway the debate.
Material that isn’t recycled heads to the landfill, which has finite space and which costs taxpayers to expand. A new cell at Haywood’s landfill cost almost $5 million and is projected to last five years. Recycling can add two years of life to that figure.
The second argument that’s routinely brought up by advocates is that recycling supports American jobs.
The county’s recycling center has five full-time employees devoted to sorting the steady stream of recycled materials that flows in. Then, there are the haulers who either bring recyclables to the facility or tow them away after they’ve been separated and compacted into enormous “bales.”
After them are those who work at plants that process recycled material, including many in North Carolina and nearby states like Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.
“Recycling supports jobs in every one of these states,” said King.
Despite Haywood’s incredible success story with recycling, the picture’s not all rosy, as is evident as soon as one walks into the Materials Recovery Facility in Clyde.
The problem with success
A sea of blue plastic bags holding recyclables greets the eye and overwhelms the imagination at the MRF. It’s difficult to picture workers actually making progress, sorting through that mountainous heap.
In the face of a shocking surge in recycling, Haywood’s MRF has not gained, but actually lost employees in the past few years.
“We, in some respects, are a victim of our own success,” admits Swanger, who along with Upton serves on the county’s solid waste task force.
Robin Ledford, pick line operator and supervisor, can attest to that. She’s seen a jump from 4 to 6 tons a week of recyclables to 20 to 26 tons a week since she started working at the pick line three years ago.
The pick line is situated in an enclosed area above the heap of blue bags and mammoth bales of already sorted recyclables. It is reminiscent of the factories of yesteryear, where workers planted themselves in front of a conveyor belt all day, engaging in highly repetitive work.
An unsorted mess enters the room on the conveyor belt, as employees situated on either side of it work furiously to toss materials into one of four bins either beside them or across from them.
The quickest and most experienced employees take care of the front of the line, and the unsorted mess gradually becomes manageable as it moves forward.
A magnet sits at the end of the line to pick up some of the recyclables as well. It cost the county $23,000, but saved the county $18,000 in just the first year, according to King.
While the county says its studying needs at the MRF, Ledford and her co-workers are not shy about expressing their own opinions.
“We need help, but the county doesn’t seem to think we do,” said Ledford. “It’s stressful. It gets to you sometimes ... Everybody there gets depressed because it keeps piling up.”
Sometimes, workers are pulled from other departments within solid waste to help keep up with the never-ending tide of recyclables.
Sheriff Bobby Suttles has devoted as many as eight inmates to help out, but recently inmates haven’t been coming to the MRF.
Ledford demands that all commissioners — along with citizens — immediately take a tour of the facility. “They really don’t see what we do,” said Ledford.
However, Swanger said the solid waste task force is actively pursuing solutions to the problem. It’s just too early to say what action the county will take.
“I think it will be a while because it’s complicated,” said Swanger. “There’s much research to be done.”
Several presentations on solid waste have been made to the county board over the last few years, but the lion’s share of discussion is still taking place within the study committee.
For now, possibilities include privatizing various aspects of solid waste, including hauling recyclables from the MRF. Swanger assures employees these discussions are entirely premature. “We don’t want to scare employees, [but] we have an obligation, I think, to explore all possibilities.”
The option of hiring more employees to deal with the surge in recycling is not off the table, Swanger added.
Upton said there’s not only a need for additional staff, but also for a director of recycling.
In Ensley’s view, it would take a while before the county could add any staff to MRF.
“We’d have to have some growth in the economy to be able to add a position,” said Ensley. “We might be able to move some people laterally.”
While the need for a solution is obvious, some disagreement among commissioners exists over just how profitable recycling can be.
According to Swanger, recycling extends the life of the landfill, but it is generally not a profitable venture.
“In the long run, it does save money, but the actual selling of the commodities that are recyclable are not profitable,” said Swanger.
Ensley, however, said recycling could potentially be a moneymaker, and the more citizens recycle, the more recyclables the county can sell.
King also defended recycling’s potential for generating revenues. According to him, the recycling sector, like many others, is experiencing a down market, which has cut into revenues. The county could see more revenue if it invested money to improve operations and fix equipment that’s long sat unused at the recycling center.
A forklift has been sitting at the MRF for a year, waiting to be fixed, while a baler is approaching 20 years of service.
“Everywhere you turn, there’s equipment down like that,” said King. “You show me a piece of equipment in a business that’s 20 years old ... In a business, you gotta stay with the times.”
Paul White, a hauler from Maggie Valley, concurred with King, emphasizing that there’s only one baler in the recycling building that’s now operational.
“If it breaks down, they’re up the creek,” said White. “Stephen King is probably doing the best he can with what the county gives him to work with — but it ain’t enough.”
Despite recycling’s many demonstrable benefits, there will always be a sliver of the population opposed to it, Swanger said.
Ledford has witnessed that opposition up close. She’s come across some “inhumane” items in her line of work, including dirty diapers, cat droppings, needles, and bagged dead animals, like a dead possum just last week.
Ledford doesn’t believe it’s an accident. “There’s no way you should get raw meat in your recyclables,” Ledford said.
Commissioners Swanger and Ensley were taken aback upon hearing about Ledford’s experience.
“Whether a person takes the time to recycle or not is one thing,” said Swanger. “But to protest against recycling is irresponsible.”
Ensley said he had not heard of such occurrences before. “That doesn’t really make any sense,” said Ensley. “You’d have to be really illiterate to do that.”
King, however, doesn’t want to pay attention to the slight minority that opposes recycling. For the rest of the world, it’s become almost fashionable to recycle or pursue sustainability.
King said he usually hates trends, but can’t deny the benefits of moving away from being a “throwaway society.”
“Most people are realizing we can’t have the same mentality of use, use, use, dispose, dispose, dispose,” King said. “They’re understanding we have to preserve some.”