This is the fifth article in our 8-part series of weekly blog posts called "The Good, the Bad, the Possibilities". For this series, we are asking local experts three questions to give you a quick overview of recent local trends and solutions with respect to a range of important issues that affect our community's sustainability. This week’s topic is solid waste, and our featured experts are Victoria O. Johnson, Director of Solid Waste Services for the City of Charlotte, and Jeffrey Smithberger, Director of Solid Waste Management for Mecklenburg County.
Victoria leads the City of Charlotte Solid Waste Services, the largest municipal solid waste department in the Southeast. As director, she manages more than 300 employees; oversees a budget of approximately $62.1 million; and is responsible for the City’s solid waste collection program, which serves nearly a million city residents. She also serves as the City of Charlotte's project lead for the circular economy initiative, which includes the development of an innovation barn that will find new, innovative uses for trash, improving the City's environmental footprint and increasing economic opportunity through entrepreneurship for City residents.
Jeffrey has over 34 years of experience in management and leadership of complex Solid Waste Management Systems. He currently works as the Director of Solid Waste for Mecklenburg County NC, which is where he resides. He previously worked as the Director of Solid Waste in Fairfax County Virginia, where he retired from after 28 years of service in 2011.
Victoria Johnson Jeffrey Smithberger
With regard to solid waste, over the past few years:
Q: What are 2-3 positive trends or developments?
“[A] growing understanding of [the] Circular Economy, and creating the understanding around healthy living and eating has [had] a direct result of waste reduction.
“Mecklenburg County has a stable system. That is a huge positive factor. We have adequate disposal capacity in our County for both recycling and trash. All of the Towns and the City recycle the same products.”
“Mecklenburg County and the City will team together on the new Innovation Barn, to try to come up with new strategies for finding end markets for hard to recycle items.”
Q: What are 2-3 negative trends or developments?
“The fall of the China’s Recycling Market that are not taking processed recyclables.”
“Communities around the country stopping recycling programs due to no end saleable market.”
“Costs for all process are rising. Recycling processing is rising a LOT. The premises’ that recycling is free is over and we need help in explaining this to the general public.”
“Wishful recycling (curbside) is costing us over $1M annually, sorting out things that should not be in the recycling cart curbside – propane tanks, baby diapers, bubble wrap, clothes hangers, etc.”
“The per capita rates are trending up for both trash and construction and demolition (C&D). Recycling is really hard to measure on a weight basis these days due to lightweighting. Almost all recycled products have undergone lightweighting (think plastic water bottles) and it now takes almost twice as many bottles to comprise a “bale” of material as it did 3 years ago. Our throughput of items is up significantly, however tonnage is flat.”
Q: What solutions would help reverse the negative trends/developments?
“Embracing [the idea of] Circular Economy will educate the USA on thinking about waste differently. Instead of just thinking about recycling, the thought should be about the end life of products at the beginning. While we as a City don’t do a good job on recycling textiles there is a large untapped revenue market for those items. Extending an Organic waste infrastructure so that food waste can be taken out the waste stream [would also help]. While there are many more innovative ways to upcycle and reuse products, these are just a few.”
“Better understanding of what can be recycled curbside. The industry has made it easy to recycle, by offering large roll carts, but that has led to significant contamination issues. Recycled products must be saleable to someone who wants/needs the product. Our system has significant contaminants in it. The general public wants to recycle, but they think everything made of plastic is recyclable – unfortunately that is not the case.”
Interested in learning more about waste? Check out Crown Town Compost to learn how you can keep food waste out of the landfill. And you can see what items are actually recyclable in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, here.
Check back next week for more interviews with sustainability experts!