Tucked away behind a thin line of trees on Eubanks Road lies the remains of Orange County’s landfill. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than a mound of dirt with a few grass patches and a thin layer of trash. But back in the 1980s, it was overflowing.
Blair Pollock started working for Orange County in 1987. He saw a need for materials to be sorted from the landfill and envisioned a recycling program as the solution.
“All the way through the landfill disposal, every step along the way, it's more environmentally sound to use a recycled product than to use virgin material,” Pollock said.
Today, Orange County offers curbside recycling services and accepts materials like plastic film, electronics, food waste, hazardous household waste and scrap metal at the newly renovated recycling facility on Eubanks Road.
“A lot of people don’t think about all these positive economic impacts when they recycle,” Pollock said. “They are not only helping the environment, they’re helping the local economy.”
Some local recycling trucks end up at the Sonoco material recovery facility in Durham, where the recycling is sorted out into different sections based on the type of material. Then, the facility sells the materials to manufacturers.
“If you call up one of these plants, or if you call a Material Recovery Facility — Sonoco — they will tell you that they are still selling all of the good quality material that they can get,” Pollock said.
Pollock said that recycling markets are expanding thanks to tax incentives instituted by the state, like the property tax exemption for recycling facilities, and the tax-free purchases of recycling equipment since July 2018.
Further growth of the industry is on the horizon. According to a report by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, 52 percent of businesses surveyed in 2015 expected to create new jobs related to the recycling industry within the next two years.
In October, Indiana-based recycling company Polywood announced it would bring 384 jobs to Person County with an average salary of $43,000, the News & Observer reported. The company, which transforms recycled materials into outdoor furniture, received over $3.9 million worth of incentives from the state.
Despite Pollock’s general approval of the system, he recognizes that the incentives could benefit local businesses.
“To me, the irony of some of this is that we’ve got plenty of local industry here that could really use the same kind of boost to their industry, but we only seem to offer it to newcomers instead of our home-grown folk,” Pollock said.
Back to the basics
William Coffey works at the Orange County Waste and Recycling Center on Eubanks Road, helping residents sort through their waste.
He’s seen the contamination problem firsthand. Some of it is careless, he said, like the whole pizza he once found in the onsite recycling bin. The rest is due to a lack of education, like the pizza boxes he finds on the stream, since the grease makes them unfit for recycling.
“A big thing is plastics because a lot of people know aluminum and cans and stuff like that,” Coffey said. “But plastic is kind of confusing because there are so many different types of plastics.”
Orange County only takes three types of plastics (numbers 2, 4 and 5), as printed in a number at the bottom of each container.
The county operates by the rule that plastic bottles, number 1, with a bottleneck can be recycled, but clamshell plastics, like a strawberry container or a red solo cup, cannot.
Education is especially crucial on a college campus because students may have grown up with different recycling guidelines, said BJ Tipton, who works for the University’s Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling.
“If people know how to recycle in one place, it might be different in another place,” Tipton said. “They’ll swear up and down that they were able to recycle their ‘whatever’ where they used to live, but it’s not something that’s recyclable here.”
Another problem are plastic bags getting snagged in the gears of recycling machines at Sonoco, causing the machines to stop regularly, said Amy Preble, the Waste Diversion Coordinator at UNC.
“It costs them a lot of money,” Preble said. “It’s a safety issue because people have to climb into the machinery and cut it out with knives, and it’s dangerous.”
Since plastic bags are not accepted in the main recycling stream, UNC has instituted a plastic film recycling program, which includes a recycling convenience center in the Student Union. Outside of campus, Preble said that grocery stores and the Orange County Waste and Recycling Center on Eubanks Road also have collection sites.
Preble said the University collects plastic films in the residence halls. These actions are part of Green Games, a campus-wide effort to engage UNC students in sustainable living for the past 25 years.
“You can earn points by putting on environmental programming in your community,” Preble said. “The more effort it requires, the more points you earn.”
The University’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Enterprises, Brad Ives works with his team to find innovative ways to improve UNC’s institutional purchasing practices within the budget. Unlike Duke, UNC can’t afford to eliminate single-use plastics, Ives said, so the school is using compostable materials.
The University has developed close ties with a company called Unifi, which transforms recycled materials from polyethylene terephthalate bottles, into materials such as yarn, Ives said. Their yarn has been incorporated into Patagonia jackets, Nike jerseys and even in the UNC graduation gowns.
Currently, Ives said, there’s no real income stream for recycling at the University. However, UNC is constantly developing new ideas for projects and seeking to educate students so that recyclables are diverted from the landfill.
“Ultimately, we’re going to have to make it part of our culture,” Ives said.