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Robust Recycling: How Mecklenburg Supports by Educating Residents

Jeff Smithberger is the Director of Solid Waste Management for Mecklenburg County. He and his team are responsible for the guidance and management of the County’s solid waste programs and services, including recycling. Many cities throughout the U.S. have struggled with recycling over the past two years due to dramatic market changes. In some cases, municipalities have been forced to stop curbside recycling programs completely. Mecklenburg County has made a concerted effort to maintain the same level of recycling in our community as well as educate the community on local recycling rules to preserve a robust residential recycling program. Natural Awakenings recently caught up with Jeff to learn how this effort is going.

NA: We know that countries that previously accepted recyclables no longer do so. How did Mecklenburg County deal with this new reality?

JS: When China and Vietnam ceased accepting recyclable materials, it affected cities on the West Coast much more than in NC. Our advantage is being geographically close to the industrial hub of paper and metal processing in the Southeast, giving us access to material buyers. Unfortunately, the global commodities market for recyclable materials nosedived, and the prices we receive have drastically decreased. Buyers now require our materials to be clean, dry and empty (non-contaminated) and that is why we work so hard to educate our residents on what we can accept and how to prepare materials to send to us.

NA: How has Mecklenburg County been able to continue to accept recyclables when other government programs have been forced to stop nationally? Are there any unique advantages that make recycling more viable here?

JS: Several factors differentiate Mecklenburg County from other communities. Because the county owns the recycling processing center, we control the process. We work hard to find markets and create viable outlets for our collected materials. Other communities have fewer options.

NA: Your department has put a lot of effort into educating the community about what is recyclable and what is not. How are people of the county doing to “recycle right”?

JS: Our local residents are doing “fair” when it comes to recycling correctly.  Unfortunately, contamination rates have gone up over the past several years and we are trying hard to correct that trend. We want recycling to be easy, but often manufacturers make, package and sell items that complicate our efforts. We have a robust outreach program and team with the City of Charlotte and surrounding towns to deliver a single unified message to our communities. Recently, we have introduced live interactive webinars to explain and discuss what can be recycled locally and how to reduce overall waste. Our “Recycle Rightmessage is also highlighted in traditional media outlets including billboards, print advertisements and some TV commercials.

NA: Has COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order significantly affected recycling in Mecklenburg?

JS: Yes. The pandemic has changed the solid waste industry significantly with more staffing challenges and increased both residential trash and recycling volumes. Our staff and contractors face the widespread stressors of avoiding the virus and coping with homeschooling kids, all while trying to manage increased workloads seamlessly. As more people stay home, they are cleaning out garages and doing home improvement, generating more trash than normal. From March to June of 2020 we saw an average increase of 22,000 additional customers per month visiting our drop-off centers.

NA: Can you describe Mecklenburg County’s role with regard to solid waste disposal versus the cities and towns?

JS: The cities and towns within the county collect residential waste curbside and deliver it to a processing or disposal location. The county manages and processes the collected materials at the landfill, compost facility or recycling center also known as a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF). Because everything that is collected goes to central processing centers, our messaging is the same for all municipalities throughout Mecklenburg County.

NA: What changes are on the horizon for trash and recycling in our community?

JS: The solid waste business is very dynamic, but we try to make it as seamless as possible to the residents. We recently purchased property in the Steele Creek area to hopefully add another full-service drop off center. Currently, there are only a few options in that area to recycle. Developing this new location is part of our strategic plan.

NA: When residents have questions about recycling, how can they get answers?

JS: Accepted items for recycling has different meanings depending on the situation (residential curbside, residential drop-off centers, commercial, industrial, construction etc.) For this interview, we are focusing on items to be collected in residential curbside carts. We encourage residents to visit for comprehensive information on several waste-related topics and follow our Facebook page for local updates and offerings.

In closing, I would like to thank Natural Awakenings readers for their enthusiasm and commitment to protect our environment. We will soon be recruiting “Residential Ambassadors” to help us educate the community on how to “Recycle Right” and “Wipe Out Waste.” If readers are interested in helping us get the word out to neighborhoods, churches or community groups, please contact us.

For local information on waste disposal options, visit To attend Recycle Right and Waste Reduction presentations or for more information on Residential Ambassadors, email [email protected].

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